How Low Can Higher Education Go?

College and university education in Israel in general has been 
undergoing rapid change, plagued as it is by a multitude of 
structural problems on both the demand and supply sides.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Many readers of Haaretz responded angrily to Tomer Michelzon’s recent article about the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya (“Ivy League-inspired education in Israel”). Many were furious over what they saw as a report about students who are shelling out large sums of money in order to enter an affluent club, where academic requirements are significantly pared down.

However, these responses missed the point – namely, that the problem is not the IDC. In fact, what’s transpiring there marks the direction being followed by the entire higher education system in Israel, without direct connection to tuition fees, to a class-based discussion about rich vs. poor, or to a structural debate about universities vs. colleges.

I should begin by disclosing that I teach in the School of Media Studies at the College of Management Academic Studies, an institution that views the IDC as a rival.

Second, like the IDC, the College of Management Academic Studies is an academic institution that is not funded by the public, which means that tuition in the institution where I teach are high – about 32,000 shekels ($9,200) a year.

That said, I believe I have a broad perspective on the subject, having taught in recent years at a number of institutions of higher learning, including Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion and Bar-Ilan universities, and at Netanya Academic College.

Higher education in the country has been undergoing rapid change, and is plagued by a multitude of structural problems on both the demand and supply sides.

The first problem lies on the demand side, and it can be stated concisely: There aren’t enough students. In the current academic year, there are 192,770 undergraduate students in Israel. The equivalent number for the previous year was 190,810 students. That’s an increase of almost 2,000 students, but it’s also a joke.

The reason is that in 1990, there were slightly more than 55,000 undergraduates – in other words, the number of these students more than tripled in 20 years, but suddenly, in one fell swoop, a half-dozen years ago, growth came to a stop.

That development was given terse expression in a statement last autumn by the Council for Higher Education that reflects a fact known to everyone in the system: “In the recent period, we have been witnessing a depletion of the age group that is turning to undergraduate studies.”

The reason for this shift is that the number of high-school students who are entitled to matriculation certificates has leveled off and the graduating classes are not growing.

In 2007, for example, there were 74,100 graduating high-school students nationally (not including the ultra-Orthodox or students in East Jerusalem). In 2012, the equivalent figure was 71,271 students. The number of those entitled to matriculation increased by only 3,000 in this period.

In short, the post-primary education system is producing a quite stable number of matriculation-certificate students. Even if all of them go on to undergraduate studies (which is patently not the case), the system has reached a point at which it cannot grow.

However, as noted, the system is also suffering from a problem on the supply side. Under the impact of a huge demand in the 1990s, the CHE approved the opening of dozens of colleges, which constituted an alternative to the veteran research universities.

There are currently 66 institutions of higher education operating in this country. It’s worth pausing over that number: 66 institutions of higher learning. There are seven research universities, the Open University, 37 academic colleges and 21 teachers colleges.

Flexible criteria

What happens in a market in which there are dozens of institutions crying out for students to fill their classrooms and not enough students to go around? Admission standards are the first to be affected.

In the past, the institutions were able to be selective about the would-be students who were pounding at their gates. Hundreds applied on the day registration opened, and they could allow themselves to choose the best and most suitable applicants. But when supply exceeds demand, no one is rushing to get into anywhere, since there are plenty of alternatives. As a result, everyone who knocks on your door is welcome, even if that means being flexible about admission criteria.

Anyone who thinks that this applies only to low standards that characterize some of the colleges is out of the loop. The fact is that the universities are just as desperate for students as the tiniest colleges. According to the assessment of the CHE: “The number of undergraduates in the universities will stabilize at about 72,730, a decrease of 1.7 percent compared to the past year. We anticipate that any growth that is registered in the number of overall undergraduate students, will be concentrated in the academic colleges.”

The implications of that forecast are well known to the colleges. In the past they were the recipients of waves of applicants who had received letters of rejection from the universities. That wave has receded and disappeared. Not even a ripple remains. The universities, even if for some insane reason they do not admit an applicant to the department of his choice, will do all they can to ensure that he remains in their institution – if not in the requested department, then in a different one. No one, but no one, is passed over.

What about the colleges? Of the 37 mentioned above, 21 are financed by the planning and budgeting committee of the CHE. In other words, they charge university-level tuition. The other 16 colleges are not state-funded. Because these institutions receive no help, they take large amounts of money from the students.

Indeed, in practice, their tuition fees are three, sometimes four times as high as university tuition – which brings us back to the discussion about the IDC. The “product” that the institutions of higher learning are selling is an undergraduate degree that takes the material form of a parchment scroll. But at a university, that scroll costs 30,000 shekels ($8,600), whereas at the IDC it costs around 120,000 shekels. That disparity has to be justified in some way.

The justification lies in the metaphor of a passenger plane. The passengers who fly from Tel Aviv to London are after the same result – to land at Heathrow – but inside the plane they get different treatment. Thus, we have tourist class, business class and first class. It’s hard to think of a request made by a passenger in first class that will not be fulfilled.

Why? Because he paid four times as much for the product as the passenger in tourist class. That’s why the food he’s served is upgraded, his legroom is upgraded, his flight attendant is upgraded, his experience is upgraded and every whim is acceded to politely, smilingly, gladly.

Apply this business model to academia and the treatment given students at the IDC sounds a little more logical. They have paid money for first class, and therefore the attendants (the faculty and the administrative staff) are available at all times, every whim is acceded to (flexible exam dates), their student period is a genuine experience (networking, clubbing, “fun” days), they get VIP treatment. Hey, we paid, right?

Anyone who is outraged at the comparison, or who thinks that what is happening at the IDC will remain within its confines, is deluding himself. All the institutions of higher learning, budgeted or not, whether universities or colleges, are following in the footsteps of the IDC, simply because they have no choice.

The first reason has to do with a development we already touched on: less demand, more supply. When your product more or less resembles that of your competitor, you have no choice but to invest in the experiential side – in music, in backdrop.

Everyone knows that a student tells himself, “If I’m not treated well at Tel Aviv University, I’ll go to Bar-Ilan, and if they don’t appreciate me there, there’s always Haifa. If I’m still not satisfied I will go to the IDC or the College of Management. Everyone is in competition, everyone wants me, everyone is fighting for me, so let’s see you smile at me!”

Which brings us to the final problem: the students. Here, I am deliberately entering a minefield, as this is an issue few are willing to discuss, but I think it’s time. For years I was turned off by the categorization of young people according to generations – the X Generation, the Y Generation and so on. I found it unconvincing and perhaps even patronizing. I now know that, far from being patronizing, it is one of the keys to understanding the problem of the higher education system not only in Israel but worldwide.

Lecturers as friends

In February 2013, Prof. Oz Almog and Dr. Tamar Almog (husband and wife) published an article in the Hebrew-language education journal Hed Hahinuch that generated a lot of noise. Their article profiled the students of Israel’s Gen Y – those who have been entering the higher education system in recent years and those who will become part of it in the years ahead.

They maintained, among other points, that students arrive without intellectual experience and without any desire to read books or articles; are used to quick, constantly morphing stimulation; are slaves to the digital world, especially Facebook, and therefore only rarely able to concentrate their full attention on lectures and lecturers; and are contemptuous of hierarchy and authority of any kind, and hence expect the lecturer to be their friend.

It’s in that spirit that they address their teachers, especially when they have complaints. They don’t know how to join words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. Most of them are certain that they are really smart and really cool, even if they’re not. If you’re critical of them, especially in public, they will burst into tears and then file a complaint with the department head and the dean.

They don’t like to learn material by heart, not only because they have no training in this but because in the era of Google and Wikipedia they have concluded that there’s no need to amass knowledge. They find it hard to solve problems on their own, because they were never asked to do that before entering the gates of higher education. They exhaust interest in the subject at hand fast, get bored in a hurry and rush to the next experience.

It needs to be emphasized that, these problematic traits notwithstanding, this generation has some huge advantages over previous ones.

For one thing, if you succeed in harnessing them to a project, when they feel a true emotional bond with it, when you show them what’s waiting at the end of the tunnel – they will virtually kill themselves for it, doing everything to succeed. It’s not a lazy generation, just a different one.

Now take these traits, which everyone who teaches in academia will agree describes the reality, mix them well and foist them on a system that suffers from a chronic state of under-budgeting, a constantly diminishing student body, vicious competition due to an endless supply of institutions – and you have the problem facing the higher education system in Israel. It has become one that has to sell its product, and that is operating in conditions of rapidly deteriorating market failure, thus leaving itself completely at the mercy of ever fewer “buyers.”

The customer is always right

If the undergraduate degree is a “product,” then I, the student, am a “customer,” and if I am a “customer,” I am always right, and because I am always right, I demand good treatment and also a quid pro quo. The quid pro quo should and can take the form of a series of layers: the quality of the product, the service provided by the seller, the intensity of my experience.

For a time, I thought that this problem was confined to higher education – until I gave at a talk to members of the Shin Bet security service. I arrived a bit early and stood outside the hall, chatting with the person who had invited me, a former field coordinator in the service. I asked about the audience I could expect. He told me they were young field coordinators who were here for a seminar day.

“Terrific,” I responded with a modicum of envy, “committed, motivated people.” He looked at me as though I’d just landed from Mars. “Do you have any idea what problems we have with this generation? Do you know how hard it is to keep them in the service nowadays?”

He then went on to enumerate, almost verbatim, all the generational traits that the Almogs had described in their article. It turns out that young Shin Bet agents also want “an experience”; they too want certain conditions, want to have a good time and also fall asleep in lectures because they were out late carousing the night before. If the Shin Bet cedars are groaning under Gen Y, shall the ivy of the colleges not be beleaguered?

Indeed, what’s infuriating about the IDC is the claim that it draws its inspiration from America’s Ivy League colleges. Even though tuition is high and the learning experience is moving and marvelous in the world’s most prestigious academic institutions, including the ones in the United States, there is one significant difference between them that no one talks about: In the internationally acclaimed institutions, you pay a ton of money and the admission requirements are sky-high; in Israel you pay a ton of money and the flexibility of the requirements is sky-high. In institutions abroad, you pay a ton of money to study as much as possible; in Israel you pay a ton of money to study as little as possible.

The best-regarded institutions of higher learning understand that they are measured not only by what they give the students, but primarily by what they require of them. Their requirements turn out outstanding graduates who are snapped up by the labor force and help create the institution’s reputation, which prompts more candidates to line up at their gates. In Israel, because of the impossibly large supply, the frozen demand and the special generation of students, no one dares to make demands. After all, they’re the customer.

The result is that a fierce war is being fought in the higher-education institutions against tough rules, and lecturers are urged to show maximum flexibility. Blood-soaked battles are being fought between these institutions, and in some cases between departments in the same institution, over who will lean over backward farthest for the students. Accommodating them is the name of the game.

Not surprisingly, then, the syllabuses, which were once packed with long reading lists, have shrunk, with priority given to reading material in Hebrew – though few read even that material. Consequently, an effort is made not to ask questions about the reading material on exams, because such questions will generate low grades, and the students will exclaim, “Hold on, is this what we shelled out so much money for? A grade of 55? What’s the story here?”

A prestigious institution would show such students the door, but in Israel, the student is a source of income, and an unsatisfied customer is liable to urge his friends not to apply to an institution that he himself left because of “humiliating treatment,” “illogical requirements” and so on. It’s a lot easier to cut corners, smile, offer another date for the exam, and be flexible and accommodating.

Is it any wonder that the IDC is pleased? Any wonder that you need to conduct the equivalent of an archaeological excavation to find a student who failed an exam? Any wonder that a lecturer at the IDC says to his students, “It’s fine that you don’t want to listen, but if you want to talk during the lecture, use WhatsApp”? Any wonder that more and more potential students are not even thinking about applying to a university? After all, they too want to be treated like passengers in first class.

The universities were the first to grasp this. Those who are familiar with the “executive” programs, in which students complete an M.A. in one academic year in return for astronomical tuition fees, know that the IDC is just an easy target. Even in the university programs, which are considered “prestigious,” the students “buy” academic flexibility for a steep price and get conditions of first class. Low grades? They became extinct together with the dodo.

Tomer Michelzon’s IDC article made readers angry, but in many respects it’s the harbinger of things to come in the entire system, a system that has been constructed with different lecturers, for a different generation of students and in different competitive conditions than in the past. That system has been discovering that the rules are changing and that it had better adjust fast. In some cases, the adjustments are beneficial and needed (there really is no reason for lecturers to be nasty to students, no matter how little they paid), but in others they are positively ruinous.

The problem of the higher education system is economic, structural and cultural, and if someone doesn’t come to his senses in the places that are responsible for its regulation, as well as in the universities and colleges, the system will be turning out increasing numbers of graduates who are inarticulate, unprofessional, uncommitted and narrow-minded – but enjoyed a thrilling experience. In another decade or two, when employers realize that the degree held by job applicants is meaningless – because the applicants learned nothing and had no requirements made of them, for fear they would leave – the party will be over and the system will implode.

This, and not the IDC in Herzliya, is the problem facing the system of higher education in Israel.

The writer is head of digital studies at the College of Management’s School of Media Studies.