The Aging of Israeli Academia

Part five of our six-part series focuses on the dwindling resources for higher education

This part of the series on the challenges facing the Israeli economy looks at government spending on higher education. As shown in the graph, which originates in The State of the Nation report by Dan Ben-David, professor of economics at Tel-Aviv University and executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, 1982 was a terrific year for higher education.

That was 34 years after the establishment of the state, and three years before inflation spun out of control and the nation trembled on the brink of default.

It wasn't just a good year for higher education, it was the year government spending on it peaked at NIS 50,000 per student in today's prices.

Dan Ben-David

Since then, Israel's economy has grown and GDP per capita has increased. But in the 28 years since, government spending on higher education per student has dropped.

If in 1982 the government's spending on higher education was equivalent to 82% of GDP per capita, in 2009 the figures had reversed to 28%, falling by roughly two-thirds.

Part of the decrease was because of the economic crisis in the mid-1980s. But although the economy recovered, government spending on higher education did not. If anything it decreased even more.

Possibly the drop is due in part to the establishment of colleges, which cost less to maintain than research universities. But that would only explain a small part of the decrease, because much of it happened in the period before colleges existed at all.

Another relevant process began before 1982: University faculties grew more slowly than the general population. That decrease began in 1973. From that year to 2006, for instance, the number of faculty positions at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa grew by exactly one.

A whole generation, says Dan Ben-David in his report, has had difficulty finding research jobs at Israeli universities. The result is that senior faculty is aging. According to the Council for Higher Education, about half the senior faculty members are 55 or older these days. The paucity of jobs isn't the only reason for the brain drain of academics, but it's certainly one of them.