Redefining priorities in higher education

Over 300,000 students are enrolled in the nation’s universities and colleges, including 42,000 in Jerusalem.

 Students at Hadassah college (photo credit: Courtesy)
Students at Hadassah college
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This week marks the beginning of the new academic year, and the expectation and uncertainty will be running high among the large numbers of new students throughout the country.
Expectations are also high among the institutions’ academic staff who each year encounter new classes of challenging students.
Over 300,000 students are enrolled in the nation’s universities and colleges, including 42,000 in Jerusalem.
Half of these latter students will study at the Hebrew University, with the other half studying at the capital’s various academic institutions.
However, with regard to public funding of higher education, the divisions are quite different. Out of the NIS 1.9 billion that the Council for Higher Education’s Planning and Budgeting Committee (PBC) is allocating to institutions of higher education in Jerusalem, NIS 1.52b. has been assigned to the Hebrew University.
Does it make sense that half of all students in Jerusalem do not benefit from half the public funding? Recently published surveys regarding student satisfaction place the universities at a very low level. In Jerusalem, Hadassah Academic College leads all the institutions of higher learning in student satisfaction, with the Hebrew University well down the list. Nevertheless, Hadassah Academic College does not receive even onetenth of the funds the Hebrew University receives from the government.
Parameters measuring quality of instruction and results are not considered in the government’s determination of funding. The PBC’s formula only considers the number of enrolled students and the areas of learning, parameters that are also determined by the PBC.
Key factors such as low dropout rates; employment success after graduation; support given to students with learning disabilities; community involvement; efforts to incorporate minorities into academic studies, including preparing academic staff to deal with a multicultural student body, are all non-numerical factors.
The authorities do not consider these important when determining annual funding for the various academic institutions.
This is what explains the total lack of correlation in Jerusalem between the budgets assigned to the city’s various institutions of higher learning.
As a result of this disparity and lack of PBC recognition of these very important parameters, many institutions need to invest time and resources to raise funds around the world from those foundations and individuals that view higher education as the most important factor in ensuring Israel’s future. The truly absurd aspect of this whole situation is that the various private institutions of higher education can cover all their expenses by simply charging high levels of tuition. This creates one more level of distinction in the higher education system between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”
“Academic studies” is a very broad term. We should however keep in mind that we live in a unique society including a mosaic of cultures, communities and religions. Higher education must also serve a social function by offering equal opportunities to every citizen, and serve as a bridge of understanding and communication between diverse cultures. The communication and dialogue between Jewish and Arab students; new immigrants and native Israelis; religious and non-religious can be made a reality when students congregate together and share common objectives, and this probably only happens at the institutions of higher learning.
One may argue that this is easier said than done, but given the right resources to train the relevant academic staff to deal with these challenges, and the creation of programs that actively bring the groups together, an environment can be fostered capable of producing significant results and positively impacting our country’s future.
It is time that the authorities realized that in financing higher education, the number of students is not the only factor to consider. Quantity is important but quality and diversity are even more important. It is time for our government to realize that we need people with very diverse capabilities. We need mechanics, we need chefs, we need lawyers, we need scientists and many other professional and non-professional people to satisfy all the country’s needs.
The doors to higher education should be open to everyone and the system should be able to advance all those that have the capability to learn. The best employees and professionals are those that enjoy their work and not those that do what they have to.
The author is the president of Hadassah Academic College.