Published in The Jerusalem Post on January 24, 1999
The academic world and the Ministry of Education clashed twice over the past two weeks, raising questions regarding the future of Israeli higher education. Are we to sacrifice excellence in academia in the face of a populist push which guarantees college study for all?
The Weizman Institute’s Prof. Harari had a nasty dispute with Minster of Education Yitzhak Levy over major cutbacks in funding for science education, and resigned amid mutual recriminations. Then Levy unilaterally announced his intention to turn the small College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel into a full-fledged university, without consulting his own, government-sponsored, Council of Higher Education Budget and Planning Committee or the Council of Israeli University Presidents. Both bodies oppose Levy’s snap decision.
The two controversies stem from far-reaching changes in the higher education sector, which is bursting at the seams. More than 148,000 students study today at one the country’s seven universities, university-sponsored colleges or recognized academic tracks at other colleges – double the number of students registered in 1990! Add to these numbers the mushrooming student population of foreign universities which have set up “branches” here in Israel — and you have a revolution.
The government funds about 70 percent of the budget for these institutions, totaling NIS 4.8 billion. The investment per student, about $11,000, is one of the highest in the Western world. Can we afford to pay for such unrestricted growth in the student population? Much of the government money subsidizing tuition usefully could be applied to priority national projects in technological engineering, physics, biomedical research and other higher intellectual inquiry
The striking students demanded free university studies, remember? But the old adage applies: something which costs nothing is worth nothing. Students getting freebies tend to drop out instead of applying themselves when the going gets tough.
Yes, I accept that in modern society every citizen should have the opportunity for post-secondary study, and for this we have all these new regional colleges. But just who is supervising academic standards at these places? Some are teaching material that students ought to have learned in high school. The foreign universities loosely operating degree programs here are subject to no oversight *whatsoever*. Want a bachelors from the Tel Aviv branch of Timbuktu U?
Wouldn’t it make more sense to support expansion of the existing universities and the qualified colleges — than to recklessly approve several dozen more start-ups and allow all the foreign pretenders to operate at will, flinging academic standards to the wind?
Now, some of these colleges presumptuously want to expand into advanced-degree programs, for which they’re not even close to being qualified. It is one thing to do a decent job of teaching basic subjects like introductory computers, business, art, journalism, design, and even law. But graduate students need to use first-class libraries, conduct research on scientific equipment costing millions of dollars, and interact with scholars and global specialists across disciplinary lines.
Masters and doctoral students are supposed to think out-of-the-box and be exposed to the world. This doesn’t and won’t happen through Karmiel or Netanya College.
FACED WITH the developing free-for-all and populist transformation of undergraduate studies, the universities are refocusing their energies on classical tasks: education of the elites, and the creation of intense graduate research environments.
Disciplines are being combined to provide a broad education, preparing for an interdisciplinary future. At Bar-Ilan University for example, the graduate study of bio-ethics has commenced this year, combining law, philosophy and life sciences into one program. Similarly, there is a new program in ‘criticism and interpretation’, combining Jewish studies with philosophy, literature and social sciences; and so on.
Education towards values is making a comeback too, something not on the college agenda. Tel Aviv University now has mandatory general courses for all students in citizenship and culture. The Hebrew University Rector has called for more investment in Jewish studies, like the required studies in Jewish heritage and civil society at Bar-Ilan.
In short, higher education is becoming highly variegated, often for the worse. We can only hope that those at the helm proceed with prudent regard for long-term national needs. The popularization of higher education must not come at the expense of our all-important and hard-earned high standards in academic and scientific excellence.