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Without a change in higher education policy, Israel may find itself lagging far behind other developed countries within a few years, according to the report published yesterday by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

OECD members include most European countries, the United States, Canada, Australia and a few Asian countries. The comprehensive report covers more than 30 countries and is considered one of the key international education studies.

The report once again highlights the main weak points of Israel's education system, including the minimal investment, overcrowded classrooms and teacher salaries that are among the lowest in the Western world.

Take the overcrowded classrooms, for starters. According to the report, in 2005 the average Israeli elementary school classroom had 26.6 students, compared to the OECD average of 21.7. Israel ranks fifth from the bottom, followed only by Turkey, Japan, Chile and South Korea, where the average was 32.6 students per classroom.

In junior high school, the overcrowding is even worse: The average Israeli class has 31.7 students, compared the OECD average of 23.8 students. Israel is fourth to last on this list. Furthermore, the report shows that the student-teacher ratio in Israeli kindergartens is the second highest in the world, following Mexico, standing at 28:1. The OECD average is 17:1. However, in elementary and high schools, the teacher-student ratios are close to the international average (17:1 in elementary schools and 13:1 in high schools).

Expenditure

A review of cumulative expenditures on elementary and high school education placed Israel 23rd out of the 34 countries, and below the OECD average of $81,500 per pupil, over the course of his education. Luxembourg ranked first in investment in all levels of education. As for the number of class hours students receive between the ages of 7 and 14, Israel ranks a respectable fifth place, with a cumulative 7,800 hours.

However, a large number of class hours does not necessarily guarantee achievements on international tests. Finland, for example, which regularly attains top test rankings, had the lowest number of cumulative class hours, at around 5,500.

A review of what is taught reveals large gaps among the various countries. For example, in Israel, only 11 percent of study hours for 9- to 11-year-olds are devoted to language studies (reading and writing), compared to the 23-percent OECD average; however, Israel devotes more time to mathematics, foreign languages and religion classes than the international average.

Teachers' pay

The reform agreements recently signed by the finance and education ministries with the teachers' union, promising a 26-percent pay increase, is being implemented at only 300 schools this year. We will have to wait a few more years to see if teacher pay does indeed improve. In the meantime, based on the 2005 figures, Israel ranks among the lowest.

An international comparison of annual pay for teachers (with 15 years of experience and earning in the highest possible bracket) reveals that in Israel, an elementary school teacher earns $25,131, compared to an average of $45,666 in OECD countries. Topping the pay chart are Luxembourg ($100,314), South Korea ($82,915), Switzerland ($63,899) and Japan ($61,054). Of the countries where figures are available, only Turkey ($21,623) and Hungary ($20,682) pay teachers less than Israel does.

Higher education

The report's authors calculated the overall expenditure on higher education relative to the number of students, the gross domestic product and the population size. By this calculation, Israel's expenditure on higher education ranks among the lowest among the developed countries, with only Greece and Russia ranking below it.

In Israel, the student population increased by tens of percentage points over the last decade, primarily due to the establishment of colleges. In many OECD countries the higher education system expanded considerably as well. Yet, while the spending per student did not change for the overwhelming majority of them, it dropped by around 10 percent in Israel.

In addition, the Israeli higher education system is increasingly relying on private funding. Israel's proportion of funding that comes from private sources is among the highest of the developed countries. In 1995, public funds comprised 59.2 percent of the overall expenditure on education; in 2004, for the first time, public funds dropped below the halfway mark, comprising only 49.6 percent of education spending.

The decreasing investment in education led to a crisis that many in the academic world call "the most serious crisis to afflict the system." In its wake, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Education Minister Yuli Tamir and former finance minister Avraham Hirchson decided to form a committee on higher education reform, chaired by former finance minister Avraham Shochat. Under the committee's recommendations, which have yet to be approved by the cabinet, government per-student funding will return to the level it was at seven years ago, and education funding will draw more from private funds, primarily higher tuition and donations.

The OECD report addresses several issues that the committee discussed. In 2005, tuition in Israel was high relative to developed countries; it ranked sixth among the 23 countries surveyed in the report. Shochat Committee members argued that even if tuition is relatively high in Israel, it is rising around the world, and their recommendation to raise tuition from NIS 8,500 to NIS 14,000 is in keeping with trend. However, in 2004-2005, tuition remained stable or dropped in most of the countries surveyed in the report. In not one of those countries did tuition almost double, as the Shochat Committee recommended doing.

Is the massive growth in the number of students and the educated labor force accompanied by a similar number of jobs for skilled workers, with appropriate salaries? Or will there be a surplus of graduates, who may find themselves working for minimum wage? The report's authors write: "The expansion of the higher education system will have a positive impact on individuals and economies, and there is still no sign of 'inflation' in the value of studying."

The figures confirm the prevailing view that high school is a threshold requirement. In Israel, 79 percent of the population aged 25-64 completed high school. Employment figures increase along with education: Among Israeli men who did not finish high school, about 60 percent are employed; the figure is 25 percent for women. In contrast, 85 percent of men and 80 percent of women with some higher education are employed.

Education reduces the wage gap between men and women, but does not eliminate the inequality. In most countries the report covered, women - even educated women - are more likely to be unemployed than men. In Israel, the unemployment rate among male high school graduates is 8.5 percent, and among women, 10.8 percent. Among college graduates, the unemployment rate drops to 3.9 percent among men and 4.8 percent among women. These differentials between men and women are particularly high - Israel is 11th on the list of the 32 counties with the largest gaps.

The statistics on Israel do not reveal any long-term changes to the trend. But in 2005, college graduates in Israel earned some 80 percent more than high school graduates. Yet in all the countries surveyed in the report, women still earned less than men with a similar level of education. The salary gaps between female and male college graduates are particularly high in Israel, and in 2005, female college graduates earned about 60 percent of what their male counterparts earned per month.