Internationalizing our universities

Borderline Views: Research and full degree programs in English are finally being offered, but to successfully compete with the international programs at North American and European universities.

tel aviv university  (photo credit: Channel 2)
tel aviv university
(photo credit: Channel 2)
The month-long season of board of governors meetings is almost over. The universities have spruced up, awarded their honorary doctorates, enticed donors, opened new buildings and laid new cornerstones, shown off their scientific wares – and have every reason to be proud of the immense academic achievements of this small country.
Following a period in which public budgets were severely cut, there is a feeling of renewal in the air. The government, aware of the damage done in recent years, has promised increased budgets; it is aware that if Israel is to retain its role as a world leader in innovation, it has to provide a greater part of the necessary resources. But unlike in the past, when resources were poured into diverse disciplines, from the hard sciences to the humanities, from medicine to the social sciences, and from engineering to schools of administration, there is now a focus on identifying, in each institute, those cores of excellence to be strengthened, often at the expense of disciplines which do not prove themselves.
Another good sign is the renewed interest in the humanities – the arts, literature, languages, philosophy and history – the so-called “soft” subjects without which a university is no more than a college of technology. Of major importance in this respect has been the activities of Yad Hanadiv of the Rothschild Foundation, which is encouraging the country’s five universities to develop joint teaching and research projects in those areas of the humanities where demand is insufficient, thus pooling resources to ensure the continued existence of subjects which have been in decline. At the recent open day held at my own university, it was refreshing to see potential students stating their desire to study the humanities simply to become better, more informed people, rather than worrying about what job in hi-tech or marketing this would lead to.
But it would be equally foolish to pretend that the humanities and the social sciences have an open budget, so that scholars can sit in their ivory towers and do nothing but ponder the problems of the world. Universities have, in recent years, transformed into institutions where buzz words like “efficiency” and “profit margins” have taken over, often at the expense of academic excellence. Professors are judged by their ability to raise research funding as much as for the outcome of their research, while their ability to publish in the top international journals has become as much about quantity as quality. For some, universities have become factories, all too often judged by the economic criteria relevant to industry.
ISRAELI UNIVERSITIES are now investing their energies in internationalization. While overseas student programs have been in place for a long time, these have until now been little more than an option for Jewish students from the Diaspora – mostly North America – to take a year out, to study in Israel and to receive accreditation toward their degrees back home.
The programs have focused on courses related to Israel, Zionism and the Middle East, and are often seen as an alternative “gap year” for those who prefer to finish their studies rather than spend a year on a kibbutz or at a yeshiva. The programs have strict academic standards, but the objective of many is to find an additional way of connecting between the Jewish youth of the Diaspora and the Israel experience.
Universities now understand that they have to promote an international profile which focuses on research and full degree programs. Teaching an entire undergraduate course in English is seen as one way of bringing serious students from abroad, while the fees for such degrees are far higher than those paid by the average Israeli student. New degree programs have been announced at Bar-Ilan, Hebrew University, and at the privately funded IDC in Herzliya, where much of the teaching has been in English since its establishment.
But internationalization has to move well beyond the notion of turning a Hebrew-language college education into an English one. To enhance their international reputation, and to successfully compete with the hundreds of international programs offered by North American and European universities, Israeli institutions have to offer top research programs and facilities for postgraduate students. The best research and doctoral students have to be attracted, and for this to happen, Israeli universities have to undergo a mind switch and invest in these programs, rather than just seeing new degree programs as a way of making a quick buck.
Walking around the campuses of the top Ivy League (USA) and Russel Group (UK) universities today, one is struck by the cosmopolitan nature of the research faculty.
If Israel doesn’t want to be left behind, it requires major investment in creating the sort of research environment offered by these leading global institutions.
My own university already has three such programs: the joint MD degree with Columbia 
University, the MAPMES MA program taught by the Department of Middle Eastern Studies and, most recently, the MA program in the Politics of Conflict taught by the Department of Politics and Government. This is a small beginning, but offers much more potential than simply transforming undergraduate collegelevel programs from Hebrew into English.
Nor should it be directed only at the Jewish audience, but should seek to bring in the best students and researchers from around the world. The many Asian students who flock to the USA and Europe should be enticed to see Israeli universities as a viable alternative. In addition to the obvious financial and “goodwill” opportunities, this will serve to place Israeli universities back at the cutting edge of scientific achievement.
Israel’s scientific standing in the world remains high, but not as high as it was 20 or 30 years ago. The internationalization of the universities is an important step in this respect, and our friends and patrons are invited to rise to this new challenge and to think of how they, too, could contribute to this important endeavor.
The writer is dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben- Gurion University.