Academia on sale? Why public colleges are on strike

We’re on strike because we want to be treated like we deserve: first-class academics with the huge added value of changing the social, economic and cultural landscape of Israel.

A creative context for Sapir College (photo credit: wikicommons)
A creative context for Sapir College
(photo credit: wikicommons)
For many years, higher education in Israel was reserved to universities. An important legislative change in the 1990s enabled the opening of academic colleges, a milestone that marked the transition to a conceptually new academic landscape. Academic colleges introduced a new era in Israeli society as they made higher education inclusive, accessible to all, inviting everyone to take part, and strategically supporting less advantaged populations toward obtaining an undergraduate degree. A game changer.
But things got out of hand – in a good way. Take Sapir College for example; I have been teaching English at Sapir College near Sderot for more than 15 years and I’ve watched the college establish its role as much more than a higher education institution. Sapir College has developed into a dominant cultural, social and employment center in the region, dramatically impacting the surrounding community, and bridging profound social gaps in Israeli society. And all this against the backdrop of a war zone, with rockets flying over our heads as we teach.
Seemingly a miracle, but not quite. More than 800 external, part-time and full-time lecturers make this miracle happen daily, investing endless hours in teaching and research, publishing in top-rated academic journals, leading innovation in pedagogy and pioneering in new academic disciplines. Thanks to them, Sapir graduates have assumed leading positions in the film and television industry, hi-tech, social entrepreneurship and much more. Many of those graduates could not meet university admissions criteria and the college option made all the difference for them. Sapir is just one example; from Tel Hai in the North, through Ruppin in Emek Hefer to Sapir in the South, college education is responsible for changing the face of Israeli society.
This incredible enterprise, however, is facing a crisis. From their moment of inception, Israeli colleges were traditionally identified with the academic objective of teaching and training, while research remained mostly the academic domain of universities. Nowadays however, college faculty members are promoted not only with respect to their teaching skills but also by the extent and level of their scholarly research, just like university faculty. In fact, they are just like university faculty expect for one thing: their salaries and employment terms. College academics are treated as second-class academics. They earn salaries 30% lower than university faculty, have significantly fewer resources for research, teach more hours, and have zero job security (in the case of external lecturers). Many of my colleagues who have been rated “outstanding” teachers in teaching surveys and who have been teaching for more than 20 years in the same institution still don’t know what their paycheck is going to look like four months ahead. They teach all over the country, running from one class to the next, trying to make ends meet, permanently stressed over their financial prospects. Try handling a mortgage with that!
That’s why we’re on strike. We’re on strike because we want to be treated like we deserve: first-class academics with the huge added value of changing the social, economic and cultural landscape of Israel. The scary part is this, and this is where you should be moving uneasily in your seat: nobody in the government is paying attention. Some 30,000 students are not studying because of the strike and it’s not even making the news.
But we’ve made up our minds. The quality of education and research we deliver cannot be compromised any longer. A steady drop in quality due to this employment discrimination will, slowly but surely, reflect badly on the diplomas our students will have in their hands. They won’t be worth much sooner than we think. College academia is not on sale because end-of-season prices are not sustainable in the business of higher education!
The writer is a faculty member at Sapir College.