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Are Israel's institutes of higher learning going down the drain? Are we in the process of wasting what may be one of the country's most important resources? Listening to the leaders of thousands of students demonstrating around the country and to spokesmen for the universities, one gets the impression that a national catastrophe is just around the corner.

A piece of good advice, to students and government ministers struggling with the budget, would be to read a book written some years ago by the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Theodore W. Schultz, "Investing in People - the Economics of Population Quality." It will throw some light on both sides of the issue so hotly debated these days. Should more money be allocated to the country's institutes of higher learning, and if so, who should foot the bill?

One thing is clear: This is no trivial issue for Israel, a country with almost no natural resources below the ground, and its only major resource being its people. Now that it is generally realized that investing in people, or in other words investing in education, is possibly the best investment of all - for the nation, and for the student - we certainly do not want to shortchange either the nation or the students.

The government has already approved a reform of the primary and secondary educational system.

The time has come to take a good look at the system of higher education. What are the underlying principles on which the structure of higher education in Israel should be based?

Firstly, satisfying the demand for higher education of the nation's young people. An insufficient supply of educational opportunities implies either a waste of potential resources, or Israeli students study abroad and possibly don't return after their studies, and that is also a waste of the country's resources.

And secondly, that the cost of the education, a good investment for the nation as well as for the individual student, be shared fairly between the students and the public purse.

Do the existing Israeli institutes of higher learning provide adequate opportunities for Israel's young people? In certain professional areas such as medicine, dentistry and law, the answer seems to be negative considering the number of students who study abroad. In other areas the demands seem to be met by the existing universities and the large number of colleges that have sprung up in recent years. It is not at all clear that this is a satisfactory arrangement.

A number of colleges are striving to attain university status, a reflection of the demands placed on them by their student bodies as well as by their faculties. For many years there have been seven universities in Israel - Hebrew University, the Technion, Tel Aviv University, the Weizmann Institute of Science, Bar-Ilan University, Ben-Gurion University and the University of Haifa. In addition, The Open University offers distance-learning opportunities. Since the last university was added to this list the country's student population has more than doubled.

Many Israeli professors who have obtained their higher education in Israel are currently at universities abroad because of a lack of opportunities at Israel's universities. The time has clearly come to add additional universities by promoting some of the existing colleges to university level.

Who should pay for all this? Higher education being a good investment for the nation and for the individual student, the cost of education should obviously be shared fairly between the government budget and the students. There is little question that the share of the financial burden carried by the students at the present time is far too low, considering the economic advantages accruing to the students as a result of the education they receive. This may not be very popular with the students, who naturally prefer to have the taxpayer foot the whole bill, but shifting more of the burden to the student makes good economic sense.

This should not mean that students with insufficient means will be denied educational opportunities. Student loans and scholarships can assure educational opportunities for all qualified students. This is a good part of the solution to the budgetary straitjacket presently strangling the universities.

A reform that would give university accreditation to colleges that have the necessary academic qualification, raise student tuition fees for studies at universities and colleges, plus a comprehensive program of student loans and scholarships, can serve as the basis for a long-needed reform of higher education in Israel.