Brain Drain

If anything promotes brain-drain it's the outright exploitation of younger talents.

Hebrew university 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Hebrew university 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
No sooner did the senior lecturers' unprecedented 90-day strike end in January than teaching staffs at the lowest rungs of the universities' totem pole declared their own work dispute. It was only to be expected. If real grievance exists in Israeli academia, it has negligibly little to do with the senior faculty. Yet in the intervening months nothing much was done about the next looming higher education crisis. Junior faculty now threaten to bring the second semester to a halt after the first was undermined by their more senior colleagues. The senior professors severely compromised the year's first half but the juniors can really stymie everything. The fact is that they do most of the teaching, tutoring, exam preparation and grading, lab work and drills. They kept some of the instruction afloat during the seniors' recent deluxe strike (the professors continued doing the research in which their personal prestige is invested and only discontinued lectures). The universities' untenured "cheap labor" is their lifeline. Each year an increasing share of the teaching duties is contracted out to adjuncts - freelancers employed at truly shameful wages, without tenure, social security of any sort, academic rights and perks and not even research opportunities. Of university staffers today, 12, 000 are categorized as "juniors." Most of these are doctoral candidates and graduate students employed at paltry wages as assistants. However, close to 5,000 are outsider freelancers. For the most part these are adjunct academics unable to get their foot in the universities' front door. They must opt for the side entrance and work essentially as underpaid temps. Meanwhile, many senior professors devote precious little time to actually imparting their expertise and experience to students. What began years ago as a stopgap measure has mushroomed into means to outsmart the system and hire cheap labor - albeit highly educated. By now half of all actual teaching is in the hands of outside adjuncts employed on short-term contracts. Our universities sack them every eight months, since nine full months on the job would entitle them to tenure. How's that for a liberal education? THE TEMPTATION is to blame the entire problem on hefty governmental budget cutbacks, whose detrimental effects on institutions of higher learning is undeniable. Yet there's always latitude within any financial constraints. How available resources are used is key. Education Minister Yuli Tamir, for instance, had appealed to university administrations to show fairness toward the freelancers and even proposed a framework to sort the matter out. Yet her laudable efforts were rebuffed by the universities, though the estimated cost of their adoption would have been NIS 54 million. This is merely 10% of what it cost to end the winter strike - the outlay to compensate the top echelon for pay erosion. That erosion was hardly as serious as claimed, especially in view of insignificant inflation and the shekel's strength. The old professors, moreover, enjoy perks not calculated into their pay packets, including impressive expense accounts, so substantial that many are hard put to spend them on trips, gadgetry and so on. IF ANYTHING promotes brain drain it's not a few shekels less a month for the top-earners, but the outright exploitation of their lowest-ranking colleagues - inevitably younger talents and, by nature, the future of Israeli academia. This is a crisis that didn't have to be - regardless of budgetary slashes - and which can still be averted. It was preventable from the outset because university administrations brought it on themselves. They could have allocated funds at their disposal differently and more honorably. University presidents and administrators can still do so by accepting Tamir's plan. Had they sincerely had the future of Israel's intellectual and scientific pursuits in mind, they would fight against the hardhearted denial of opportunities to those who ought to be advanced and cultivated most. While the universities have cause to complain about inordinate and shortsighted Treasury tightfistedness, they would be a great deal more persuasive if they put their own houses in order first and added social justice to their agenda.