Cutting higher education to the bone

Borderline views: Last week, all of Israel’s universities had a two-hour cessation of studies in protest against the planned cuts.

Ben-Gurion University campus in Beersheba 370 (photo credit: BGU)
Ben-Gurion University campus in Beersheba 370
(photo credit: BGU)
Last week, all of Israel’s universities had a two-hour cessation of studies in protest against the planned cuts in the higher education budget. This comes at a time when, following a 10-year period during which budgets were cut, new academic staff were not hired and the universities stagnated, there had been some light on the horizon.
It was understood that the outgoing government was interested in making up for the deficiencies and had announced a new six-year plan aimed at investing in higher education, promoting research and bringing in new, young, dynamic faculty, including many returnee Israeli academics who had sought greener pastures elsewhere (especially in North America).
But almost before it even started, the outgoing government – and we will assume that the incoming government with its planned all-around budget cuts will follow the same policy – announced new cuts.
The six-year investment plan, totaling NIS 2 billion, would, if implemented, have done nothing more than bring Israel’s universities back to where they were 10 years ago. It would not only have allowed universities to replace all of their retiring faculty with fresh blood, but would also have enabled the universities to slightly increase the number of academic faculty – necessary given the huge rise in numbers of students which has taken place during this same period.
The teacher-student ratio today is far higher than at any time in Israel’s history, even allowing for the tens of thousands who also study at the new academic colleges, meaning each faculty member has less time available for research, and less time available for individual tutoring.
The research component of the planned development budget was significant. It was aimed at promoting centers of excellence which could compete on the international stage with the very best universities.
It was aimed at preventing the continued migration of excellent young academics and researchers, trained and educated in Israel, to North America and Western Europe.
Given the government commitment to this new policy of development just two years ago, the universities had already moved ahead with new projects, including the partial recruitment of new faculty, investment in research infrastructure, and the preparation of plans for new areas of research and teaching which are at the cutting edge of scientific activity in the world today.
The government reneged on its commitment with the latest round of cuts, a reversal of policy that will mean some promises to new faculty will not be kept, retiring faculty will not necessarily be replaced, while all talk of increasing the faculty in line with the huge increase in university activities has returned to being no more than a dream.
Some of the country’s universities, which have just come through a difficult period of balancing their budgets, will now face the possibility of new budget deficits which may even result in the need to close down some departments and areas of activity. Within the universities, the hardest hit will be, as always, the Humanities and the Social Sciences, where academic scholarship cannot, and should not, be judged in terms of profit and managerial efficiency, but in terms of the values and ideas they bring to any civilized society.
But while they may be hit hardest, the universities as a whole will be affected, including those areas of hard-core research in medicine, nanotechnology, engineering and (in the case of my own university) desert and climate studies – areas which Israeli brain power has so much to offer but which are gradually being taken over by scholars elsewhere, not least in Asia where their governments are investing billions in higher education and research.
They understand that this is the way forward and they are slowly pushing Israel into second-rate status, as they emerge to lead the world in scientific endeavor.
None of this has been helped by the overt politicization of the management of Israel’s higher education during the past five years as a result of the intervention of outgoing Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar.
He has been more interested in politics than in education, more interested in ideology than science. He was influential in appointing a new Council on Higher Education, some of whose members were determined more by political affiliation than academic qualification, and has been more interested in promoting colleges such as Ariel in the West Bank or the neocon Shalem Institute despite the fact that they do not always meet the necessary academic standards, while at the same time trying to close down excellent university departments because he does not like the political views of some of their faculty.
His direct political intervention has been at the expense of promoting the real needs of higher education in Israel and ensuring that the budgets necessary for their minimal development will be retained. It has also resulted in international criticism of Israel’s system of higher education, which will take a long time to repair. Absolutely no one in the world of higher education – excepting a few political cronies of the outgoing minister – will shed a tear over his departure. Whether the new minister, Shai Piron, will undertake a new policy in this respect remains to be seen, especially as the members of the CHE will for the time being remain the Sa’ar appointees (the council is appointed once every five years).
Where the promised financing for the Ariel College will come from, when the development budgets of the main universities are now about to face new cuts, is unclear. The world of donations and philanthropy on behalf of the universities is also in a difficult stage – less people with less money, given the economic recession, are coming forward. The competition for each new donor between the universities in North America and Europe is intense, and anyway the donor component of the overall university budget is rarely more than seven to eight percent of the entire budget and is normally aimed at physical infrastructure rather than the daily process of teaching and research.
No question about it – for a small country, Israel has a strong international reputation in the field of science. But this has been declining significantly during the past two decades, while new kids on the block – especially China and Korea – are rapidly moving ahead to join the elite universities of North America and Western Europe. We have already fallen behind. The new six-year development budget would have brought us back to par with where we were 10 years ago, no more. The latest cuts are going to make it all the more difficult for the country’s universities to survive into the next decade, let alone compete on the international stage.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The views expressed are his alone.