Administering the country’s universities

Recognizing the Ariel College as a university has been strongly opposed during the past decade, partly because of its academic standards.

Students at Ariel university 390 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Students at Ariel university 390
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Last week the government approved the members of the newly appointed Council for Higher Education (CHE). The council is composed of senior academics from all of the country’s universities and Institutes of Higher Education, together with public figures who are appointed by the Minister of Education. The CHE is changed once every five years, allowing other education ministers to leave their imprint on the way in which higher education in Israel is planned and funded.
Formally, the minister is the chairperson of the CHE, but in reality he/she rarely attends council meetings. For the past five years the CHE has been effectively managed by Professor Manuel Trajtenberg, an economist from the Hebrew University who has become better known for his role in recommending economic and social changes to the government in the wake of last summers’s social protests.
Along with the CHE, there are two other bodies which manage higher education in Israel.
Associated with the CHE is the Committee for Planning and Funding (VATAT) which determines the funding of the country’s universities and Higher Education Colleges (Michlalot).
The funding criteria are based on a combination of student numbers, research and academic excellence as measured through doctoral students and publications in the top international academic and scientific journals, and the ability of the universities to raise research funding in the highly competitive international arena.
These criteria give rise to competition among the country’s seven universities, each trying to achieve higher scores as a means of receiving more government funds. Universities strongly compete with each other to recruit the best young scholars (they are prepared to offer large recruitment bonuses in terms of start-up money for their research, housing assistance and new laboratories), or in pinpointing the specific journals and research funding agencies to focus on as a means of achieving a higher score on the VATAT model.
The third national body is the Council of University Presidents (VERA), which is independent from the CHE and VATAT. This is a forum which enables the universities to coordinate policy on higher education, represent the needs of the universities to the government and to the CHE as an independent lobby, and prevent competition in those areas and activities where such competition undermines, rather than strengthens, the status of higher education in Israel.
One of the most contentious issues on the agenda of the CHE during the past decade has been the role of the Teaching Colleges (Michlalot). Their establishment has brought about a major growth in the number of people entering the higher education system, resulting in increased competition for government funding.
The Michlalot are intended to focus on teaching alone, while the universities are expected to focus more strongly on research. Nevertheless, they compete with each other for undergraduate students because of the funding implications of the VATAT model.
There is an in-built paradox in the system as far as the universities are concerned – on the one hand being told to focus all their energies on research but at the same time receiving significant funding based on the number of students they recruit each year.
Another contentious issue which will be on the agenda of the new CHE is the recognition of the Ariel College as a university.
This has been strongly opposed during the past decade, partly because of its academic standards which are more akin to a college than an internationally recognized university, but also – and perhaps mainly – because of the location of the college in the West Bank.
Many Israeli academics refuse to take part in conferences and seminars at Ariel, and hundreds have signed a petition opposing the recognition of the Ariel college as a fully-fledged university. Until now, the college (along with other smaller colleges in the West Bank) has been governed by an alternative CHE, exclusively set up to deal with the West Bank institutions. But the new CHE will include two members from the Ariel Academic College, and along with the public figures appointed by Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, this is seen as a means of granting full university status to Ariel.
Recognition of Ariel as the country’s eighth university will, if approved, have major international implications, as it will strengthen those who are seeking every possible excuse to implement an academic and scientific boycott against Israel’s universities.
Private institutions of higher education, most notably the IDC in Herzliya, have their degrees approved by the CHE but are not subject to the VATAT funding framework and are therefore able to operate independently, offering higher salaries and charging higher tuition fees. In recent years, the IDC, too, has realized that to achieve international status it must also transfer its focus to research-based activities, and it has begun to compete with the seven universities for the best young scholars and professors.
The same is true of the Open University, which focuses on students who are unable to undertake full-time study at the seven universities or michlalot, but also values the research-oriented activities of its full-time academic staff.
Various agreements have been made over the years which enable students who started their degrees at the OU to transfer to the country’s other universities for the completion, or continuation, of their studies.
Israel, for a small country, offers a wide range of higher education to its citizens and is rightly considered as one of the worlds’ leading actors in the fields of teaching and, even more importantly, scientific research. Despite the attempt by some political groups to suggest otherwise, the recruitment and promotion criteria at all of Israel’s universities are among the toughest in the world, and the fact that the demand for tenure track academic positions far outstrips the supply means that the universities are able to maintain exceptionally high standards.
Overall, the national bodies such as CHE, VATAT and VERA offer a unified framework for funding and for quality evaluation, although it would probably be preferable if the system was less rigid, enabling the universities to develop their own teaching and research policies more independently, but without going all the way down the road to privatization. It is also essential that the deliberations of the CHE focus entirely on education and research and refrain from the politicization of the higher education system. It is to be hoped that the new CHE, despite the political appointees of the Education Minister, will not go down this path.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The opinions expressed are his alone.