Study: Reform Led to Fivefold Rise in Israeli PhDs

Research suggests that if trend continues, benefits will trickle down to lowest socioeconomic groups in 20 years.

Or Kashti
Or Kashti
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Students walking at Tel Aviv University.
Students at Tel Aviv University.Credit: David Bachar
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

A new Tel Aviv University study says the number of people obtaining PhDs in Israel grew fivefold in the years between 1995 and 2011.

The research by Prof. Ami Wolenski, from the Department of Education at Tel Aviv University, reveals that the numbers went from 276 in 1995 to 1,409 in 2011. Over the same period, which largely overlapped the period in which higher education underwent substantial reforms that made it easier to obtain such a degree, there was a relative drop in the proportion of degrees awarded to students from higher socioeconomic status, in favor of students from less affluent communities.

Wolenski, who is also chief scientist at the Education Ministry, claims this as a clear sign that the opening up of academic institutions has brought about the inclusion of new population sectors, ones previously underrepresented at the higher echelons of academia.

In the early 1990s, the intake of new students at academic institutions did not keep up with the growth of matriculating high-school students. In 1993, the Council for Higher Education discussed a proposal calling for a new master plan for higher education, which would enable the addition of 35,000 new students by the year 2000, at 12 upgraded institutions that would be certified to grant academic degrees. At the time, Wolenski was one of the senior Education Ministry officials who supported the initiative.

In an article published recently in an Israeli educational periodical, he described the arguments presented for and against the reform during the council’s deliberations. The dispute at the time revolved around the question of whether expanding the reach of higher education would detract from its quality or, conversely, improve it.

“I’m worried by the need to open up more spaces, not due to students seeking education but rather status and better pay. There are pressures exerted on the council, termed by some as populist in nature,” said one council member, who opposed the reform.

“Our role is solely to preserve the quality of higher education. This is our mission and most treasured asset, and we must not compromise. Weaker segments of society whose academic achievements are insufficient,” that council member continued, “should be strengthened at the level of primary and high schools, and not at the expense of higher education.”

Others expressed concerns about new members of the academic world coming from circles in which academia is not “part of their environment.”

Others opposed the concerns suggesting that higher education quality would be compromised. “We all care about our universities,” said one member, “but it’s possible that enlarging the pool of people with education will improve the opportunities for excellence. The more we restrict the system to elites in our society, the fewer opportunities for excellence will arise, since the elites will eventually dwindle away.”

Another member noted that the wider the base of the pyramid, the more people would populate its highest reaches. Wolenski wrote that after pointed internal arguments, including public warnings about the destruction of higher education, the reform was adopted by a two-thirds majority.

The council’s 1993 decision, backed by government ratification the following year, marked a dramatic change in higher education, going far beyond all expectations. The pressure grew for recognition of new degree-granting institutions. These included private ones that operated without public funding (by demanding higher tuition fees), as well as an expansion of existing universities and colleges that were facing competition from private colleges.

The last two decades have been characterized by competition among academic institutions for students and their tuition fees. Forty-four new institutions were added over this period – nearly four times the number originally intended. The number of students rose by 300% between 1993 and 2012. There were 450 requests for council approval of new programs in 2009, and 500 requests in 2011. A senior official in higher education said recently, in the context of the high salaries paid to heads of private colleges, that “the competition between institutions has gotten out of hand.”

In this study, the results of the expansion of higher education were examined by comparing the socioeconomic status of those receiving doctorates (obtained only at universities). Whereas in 1995 only 6 students from communities in what the Central Bureau of Statistics defines as the fourth “cluster” and 17 from the sixth cluster were studying for doctorates, their numbers in 2001 had risen to 211 and 270, respectively (a higher cluster representing higher socioeconomic status). Their proportion among recipients of PhD degrees grew from 2.2% and 6.2% to 15% and 19.2%, respectively (this trend is absent in the fifth cluster, in which the grading of communities underwent changes between the two periods).

In contrast, the proportion of PhD recipients from the eighth cluster dropped from 21.4% to 15.3%. In the even more established ninth cluster, meanwhile, this proportion dropped from 11.2% to 5.1%. These data refer only to Jewish students, who make up the vast majority of doctorate recipients.

The data shows that the “decision to open the gates of higher education led to an enrichment of the academic spirit and its research capabilities, rather than depleting it as the opponents of reform feared,” wrote Prof. Wolenski. “If we accept the assumption that doctoral studies express quality and that the road to this degree involves selection and distillation of students from earlier stages, then the opening of higher education to weaker societal segments only benefited the system. Opening up opportunities for a first degree, mainly in peripheral communities, provided opportunities for populations for whom higher education had previously only been a distant dream.”

Wolenski also added another conclusion last week: If this trend continues over the next 20 years, and the academic network absorbs students from clusters 1-3 (consisting mostly of Arab communities), “we will discover that their ambition and capabilities are not determined by their socioeconomic status, and we’ll gradually find them obtaining higher degrees. There are no shortcuts. These processes take two to three decades.”

There are other questions currently without answers: What proportion of doctorate recipients started out at public (versus private) colleges, or at universities? Was there a rise in PhD recipients who started their studies abroad? If so, where?

Wolenski believes that the opening-up of academic institutions has reduced societal inequality. However, another study – published a few months ago by Eyal Bar-Haim, Carmel Blank and Yossi Shavit from Tel Aviv University – presents a somewhat different picture. By analyzing data published by the Central Bureau of Statistics, these researchers found that between 1995 and 2008, there were indeed more opportunities to obtain high-school matriculation, as well as lower and higher academic degrees, but the main beneficiaries were people in the more established segments of society.

“The reforms in high-school matriculation and higher education that took place in the 1990s and 2000s greatly increased the numbers of people with an education, but inequality between different segments increased. The added students with higher education came from stronger sections of society,” said the article, which was published in the annual report of the Taub Center. “These students had better economic, cognitive and cultural resources, which allowed them to benefit from the new opportunities offered by the expansion of higher education, in comparison to people from weaker segments of society.”

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