Borderline Views: The crisis facing Israel’s universities

During the past five years Israel’s universities have attempted to make up lost ground following a decade of reduced public funding, which brought about a major brain drain.

A student at Jerusalem’s Shalem College. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A student at Jerusalem’s Shalem College.
A great deal of attention has been devoted in recent months Israel’s response to the academic boycott, despite the fact that its real impact on Israeli scientific collaboration with the world is minimal. The almost NIS 300 million cut in the state budget announced last week, on the other hand, will have a very real impact on Israel’s universities and research community. If this cut is implemented, it will cause a thousand times more damage to Israel’s scientific endeavors than any boycott can ever hope to achieve.
During the past five years Israel’s universities have attempted to make up lost ground following a decade of reduced public funding, which brought about a major brain drain of Israeli scientists, who left for greener pastures elsewhere. At best, the number of full-time research and teaching posts at the country’s universities remained unchanged, while in many cases the numbers were reduced as positions were cut and retirees were not replaced.
At the same time, the number of students at the country’s universities grew disproportionately. This resulted in the teacher-student ratio at most of the country’s major research institutions more than doubling. Not only did this place a greater burden on each individual professor, it also left many with little available time to engage in research which, at the end of the day, is where Israel desires to compete.
It is remarkable that given the increased pressures of the past decade Israel continues to compete with the world’s top universities. But the overall ranking of the country’s universities in global terms has not improved, and in some cases has worsened.
As head of the Council for Higher Education, Knesset member Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg understood the dilemma Israeli science was facing. He made a major effort to redress the balance by developing a five-year plan which would increase the amount of available public resources, increase competitiveness between institutions and help address the problem of some of Israel’s best scientists leaving to find positions at universities in Western Europe and North America, where they remain a sought-after commodity.
Trajtenberg’s strategic planning was not without its critics, even within the university world. Some were of the opinion that he transformed the university budgeting system into a world of technology and factories, where knowledge was perceived as a commodity whose significance could be measured in purely economic terms.
Planning at the country’s universities has been transformed into an annual economic exercise, where the academics have only marginal input into the decision making process and where the economic planners (the accountants and the administrators) make the key decisions. Universities have become totally imprisoned by this way of thinking, and academic vision has sometimes been replaced by accounting, with statistics, numbers and PowerPoint presentations taking the place of any serious discussion of what universities are and what their ultimate role in society should be.
The decrease in public-sector funding has coincided with a reduced ability of Israeli institutions (not just universities) to raise funds abroad. This is due partially to the downturn in the global economy, along with the changing priorities of a newer and younger, generation of potential donors and philanthropists, who are less interested in giving to Israel than were their parents’ and grandparents’ generation.
Under the last five-year plan there was a commitment to increasing funding for the country’s universities, in return for which the universities were, rightfully, expected to become more efficient and streamlined, to reward real scientific excellence while getting rid of the academic dead wood and to compete even more strongly than before in an increasingly internationalized scientific world. This includes competing more successfully for the large, prestigious international research grants.
A small number of what have become known as the “lost generation” of young scholars from the previous decade, for whom no new positions were available, were partially integrated back into the university system as teachers. Attempts were made to attract the best Israeli scientists back from Europe and North America, while many universities undertook a reassessment of their global standing in an attempt to improve their rankings and regain the global position they held 15 to 20 years ago.
There is no shortage of excellent young scientists across the academic disciplines who are knocking on the doors in an attempt to get a foothold in the university system and who have a great deal to offer.
Each time a new position is advertised (almost exclusively to replace retiring faculty), there can be anything upward of 30 to 40 highly qualified applicants for the post. Making the final cut is exceedingly difficult as for every successful applicant, five or six of equal caliber have to be turned down due to lack of funding.
More recently, the universities are facing a new dilemma, with faculty who refuse to retire at the mandatory retirement age of 67, arguing that ageism should no longer play a factor (as in the USA ) in determining retirement. This, in turn, prevents the universities from hiring younger and fresher faculty in their place, making hiring opportunities even more scarce.
The latest government cuts, if they are to be implemented, will hit universities exceedingly hard. The few advances made during the past five years to redress the negative balance of the previous decade will be wiped out overnight. Israel will find it increasingly difficult to compete on the world scene, and will be overtaken by the burgeoning universities in Asia (China and Korea in particular), where huge resources are being invested in higher education and scientific research.
The government is also guilty of playing parochial coalition politics with the future of Israel’s science. A replacement for Trajtenberg has yet to be appointed, and there are plenty of rumors indicating that Education Minister Naftali Bennett desires to appoint someone who shares his political views rather than someone best qualified to fill the job. The acting chairperson of the CHE, Professor Hagit Yaron-Meser, former president of the Open University, remains in limbo, unsure whether she will be given the opportunity to lead the country’s universities forward.
The government must understand that any further cuts in the already reduced budget for the country’s universities will make it even more difficult to compete on the global stage and almost impossible to keep the best Israeli scientists in the country.
It is not too late for the government to make the country’s universities and scientific advancement a number-one priority and step back from this latest round of proposed cuts.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.