Borderline views: Failing to internationalize our universities

The IDC and Jerusalem are leading the way, and the rest of us have much work to do if we are to compete.

Ben Gurion University 370 (photo credit: Courtesy of Ben Gurion University)
Ben Gurion University 370
(photo credit: Courtesy of Ben Gurion University)
A delegation of students from Britain visited a number of Israeli universities last week to encourage Israeli students to consider studying in the UK.
At the same time a delegation from the IDC – the Interdisciplinary Institute in Herzliya, Israel’s private university which has put a strong emphasis on the international market, visited a number of top British universities to hawk their educational wares.
The corresponding visits were promoted and supported by the Israel embassy in the UK and by the British Council as part of a strategy aimed at promoting students from both countries undertaking study programs in each others’ countries.
Internationalization is part of the game within higher education. One only has to visit major campuses in North America or Europe to be impressed by the fact that many departments have as many foreign research students, and even faculty, as they do from their own countries.
And while Israel is trying hard to be part of that game, we have fallen a long way behind our foreign counterparts.
Some institutes, such as the IDC, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Bar Ilan, are far more advanced in this respect than others – each of them offering full degree programs for foreign students while, at the same time, selling their own particular wares – such as the strong international flavor of the IDC, the uniqueness of living and studying in Jerusalem, the vibrant metropolitan life of Tel Aviv, or the unique characteristics of a religious university at Bar Ilan – with which it is difficult for the others to compete.
Israeli universities have much to offer for an international audience. They are recognized as being among the top universities in the world, and many foreign students find it exciting to be able to spend a formative part of their life in Israel.
The social context is often as important as the quality of the educational wares on sale, but neither can one ignore the world class expertise which exists at some of Israel’s universities, especially for research students who are more selective in choosing their place of study, such as the Weizmann Institute or the Desert Research Institute at Sdeh Boker.
But overall Israel is not succeeding in attracting large numbers of foreign students, the way both North America and Western Europe are.
The Asian market – China and Korea – which has become so prominent in recent years is almost a closed shop to Israel.
For a few it may be politically motivated, but the bigger problem is down to bureaucracy and the difficulties encountered by fore ign students or faculty. There have been numerous instances of Israeli universities desiring to hire top-rate faculty from throughout the world, who have encountered such a minefield of problems in getting a work visa from the Interior Ministry that they often give up.
Even when they do succeed, after numerous phone calls and banging on the desk, in getting the necessary work visa, many of them leave after a few years because of the problems they encounter in the annual headache of having to go through the whole process time after time.
This despite the fact that they have been fully accredited by their academic peers as first-class scholars who only bring prestige and quality to Israeli universities.
This is a problem encountered by scholars who are not Jewish and who do not therefore qualify for citizenship under the Law of Return, but are nevertheless willing, even eager, to work in Israel and to contribute to the country’s scientific endeavor.
Student visas are slightly easier to come by, but even then it is normally for a one-year overseas students program aimed at bringing Jewish students to study for a year in Israel, rather than for full degree programs which are open to anyone who wants to come and study here.
This excludes some of the huge students reservoirs in Asia – especially China and Korea – who are flooding universities throughout North America and Western Europe, but find it difficult to and cumbersome to arrange longterm visits to Israel.
Nor does it help Israel sell its wares when some of its universities insist, in a pique of patriotism, that all signs and instructions on campus must be only in Hebrew.
Combine this with the fact that too many of their administrative staff are unable to converse with foreign students in English (or any other language) and thus are simply unable to offer basic professional assistance to students.
The game rules of being part of the international scene require fluency in English as a prerequisite. Unfortunately this is lacking among administrative staff at many Israeli institutes.
There is a huge difference between offering year programs for overseas, mostly Jewish students, and full degree or doctoral programs. The former have always been part of Israel’s university scene, and too many of the universities have mistakenly believed that they simply have to expand these programs, many of which focus on topics relating to Israel, Jewish history and Zionism, to become fully “internationalized.”
But this is not where the market lies today – for true internationalization to take place, the universities have to offer full degree programs, of equivalent stature to those being offered elsewhere. The degree programs have to undergo a process of standardization, as outlined in the Bologna process and which has been accepted, in principle, by Israel.
Adhering to the Bologna criteria enables students throughout the entire European arena to study elsewhere and have their degrees automatically accepted and recognized in all other countries.
Nor is our desire for internationalization helped by the fact that many of the academic faculty refuse to teach in any language but Hebrew. They argue that this is important in effort to ensure that the Hebrew language is not discarded.
There was even an attempt recently to prevent doctoral students in Israeli universities writing their theses in any language but Hebrew, which would have limited even further the ability of the universities to attract top quality research students to this country.
Obviously Israeli students, especially undergraduates, can expect to study in Hebrew, but by making it exclusive, this prevents foreign students from participating.
This pique of parochialism also denies important foreign language skills to our own students who then find themselves much more limited in what has become a global job market for educated young adults.
We also have to be clear whether the ultimate objective of internationalization is to make money, by charging higher fees for foreign students, or to be part of the dynamically changing environment of global education.
Whichever it is, and we will assume it is a combination of the two, foreign students will not pay extravagant prices if the services they are offered are below par.
We can’t have the best of both worlds. Either we want to be part of the international research and higher education scene, or we want to remain closed within our own Israeli parochialism. If we truly want the former, then we have to be prepared to undertake the necessary investment and make the appropriate changes in the way that we teach and research in order to maintain our international standing.
Israeli universities have much to offer to the international student community but we need to invest in the human and physical infrastructure if we wish to create the conditions which will make coming to Israel an attractive proposal, beyond the limited market of the Jewish world alone.
In this area, the IDC and Jerusalem are leading the way, and the rest of us have much work to do if we are to compete.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.