A Vision for Israel's Universities

Top universities are an existential necessity for Israel, a country whose only viable economic outlet is R&D.

Haaretz's July 2nd editorial formulated a challenge for the universities: "What we need is not to beg for scraps or to try to beat private colleges on their home turf, but leadership and vision that will redefine the universities as Israel's leading centers of science, humanities, scholarship and research." Indeed a worthy goal!

Here is a reply to this challenge. First of all, it is important to recall that higher education is in a state of crisis all over the world, including the U.S. On the one hand research is becoming increasingly expensive; on the other, in a modern, knowledge-based society like Israel more than one-third of the population receives at least some higher education. Hence, higher education is torn between two conflicting, and equally important, goals: excellence in research and providing access to ever more students.

It is impossible for a third of any population to study at expensive research institutions. That is why these tasks should be split: Whereas research universities should focus on producing first-rate research and educating future researchers and academics, colleges should increase access to higher education. This model has been successfully applied in California, a state with an excellent university system - home to Berkeley, one of the world's best public universities - and a two-tiered system of colleges serving the population at large.

Top universities are an existential necessity for Israel, a country whose only viable economic outlet is R&D. If we fail to become a thriving knowledge society, we will not survive.

Higher education has become a lucrative global business, with the world's top universities competing with each other for the world's best and brightest students. Europe's leading universities have all launched programs in English to attract these students.

Israel's research universities should aim to become more international, attracting both an international student body and faculty (one of the measures of excellence in global ratings). However, launching programs in English is not enough: Thousands of Israeli students want to study at U.S. Ivy League universities, or Oxford and Cambridge for that matter, because of the prestige associated with these institutions. They know they will get a first-class education, and that their degree will give them a competitive advantage in the global marketplace.

A university's standing is primarily determined by the quality and prestige of its researchers and its research's global impact. Israel should aim to become home to universities ranked among the world's top 20, where students from Europe, the U.S. and the Far East will want to study, because they want to get the best possible education, and because degrees from Israeli universities will carry international prestige.

All this can be achieved - if Israel decides to turn this effort into a national project. Doing so will require no longer funding universities according to the number of B.A. students enrolled, and instead allocating money exclusively on the basis of excellence in research and teaching. Whereas the current system rewards quantity, the new system will reward quality. Research universities will continue offering B.A. programs, but fewer and on a very high level, for students who intend to proceed to advanced degrees, instead of entering lucrative professions as soon as possible.

Students will receive government loans not only for tuition but also to cover part of their living expenses, so they can focus on their studies, and no longer have to work 30 hours a week, as they do now. Foreign students will of course pay full tuition.

In the short term, realizing these goals will require investment: university research facilities will need upgrading, and Israel should provide academic positions for at least 500 outstanding Israeli researchers currently teaching at top universities in the world, primarily in the U.S. But this is an investment in the future of Israel's economy. Research shows that the number of high-powered researchers and first-rate academics (known as the scientific talent index) correlates strongly with overall economic performance. Hence, the universities will also be tasked with turning out the future leaders of Israel's R&D, both public and private.

Research universities are not meant to train a small elite only, but should aim to improve the quality of our society. They should not educate narrow-minded specialists, but people with broad horizons and humanistic knowledge. As in other leading universities in the world, their B.A. programs should be geared toward a broad liberal education and not toward early professionalization. Doing so will impact society at large, because these universities will also educate doctoral students who will teach at the colleges, whose level will rise accordingly. As a result, the quality of Israel's civil service will improve and its current politicization will be replaced by a meritocratic system.

Israel has the human capital to realize these aims. If you will it, it is no dream.

The writer, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, teaches at Tel Aviv University's Psychology Department.