Israel’s Universities Could Be World Leaders

On some fronts, we're already there. On others, we've got a ways to go.

A new organization called Universitas 21 has ranked 48 countries for their higher education systems, and Israel is ranked number 19. While this is not catastrophic, it is certainly not where Israel should be. The situation could be dramatically improved, if Israel would recognize that its elite universities are dramatically underfunded world-class assets.  

The Universitas 21 ranking has a number of components. The one most indicative of the sheer quality of the faculty’s scientific output is how often its work is quoted in the international scientific literature. Here is what Universitas 21 writes in the small print: “The United States and the United Kingdom have the world’s top universities. But on a weighted per capita basis the depth of world class universities is best in Switzerland and Sweden, with Israel and Denmark next in rank order.” In other words, while Israel’s total system is not top-tier, its quality per capita is first rate.

This disparity between Israel’s total ranking and the quality of the research Israel’s universities generate does not surprise me. A year ago, I reported that Tel Aviv University is one of only eleven universities on the planet that scores a perfect 100 on this measure of citation per faculty. It's up there with Harvard, MIT and Princeton, and above Oxford and Yale, which scored ‘only’ 97. This means that Israel has at least one of the world’s leading universities – but that the public is not aware of this, because Tel Aviv University is only number 166 in the Time Higher Education World University Rankings.

The reason for the disparity between quality of research and overall ranking is very simple: on measures other than quality of research, Tel Aviv University, where I teach and which I therefore know best, fares dismally. Prime among these is the ratio of faculty to students. The latter measure is very important, because it indicates how much face-to-face time students have with professors.

Tel Aviv Universityhas 26,000 students, with only 1,000 full-time faculty. This leads to ratio of 26 students per instructor, whereas at Harvard the ratio is students 6.7 per faculty member, i.e. better by a factor of four! This means that it is much more difficult at Tel Aviv University to invest time in all individual students, to identify the most promising and to make they receive the support they require to evolve into top researchers.

How can Israel increase the faculty of its research universities in the short run? The answer is surprisingly simple. Economist Dan Ben-David has shown that fully one quarter of Israeli-educated researchers currently teach at elite universities in the U.S. A large percentage of these researchers would gladly return to Israel if they were offered a university position, even if they would have to settle for lower salaries here. But Israel’s universities simply don’t have the money to bring them back.

Some might argue that Israel cannot afford to invest more money in its universities. This, I believe, is dangerously shortsighted. The opposite is true: Israel cannot afford not to invest more in its research universities. The driver of Israel’s economic growth in the last two decades has been its R&D sector, and Israel’s economic future will continue to depend on its research universities to educate top researchers.

What, then, is to be done? First of all, the general public must be informed about how important elite universities are for the country’s future. Israel’s public discourse on higher education mostly focuses on how many students have access to higher education of some sort – and the country has fared well in this respect, with college enrollment higher than ever. But we must not be deluded: while it is great that many more students study in colleges nowadays, the future of Israel’s R&D sector depends on the fate of its research universities.

This, to many, smacks of elitism, but in purely economic terms, every dollar invested in R&D generates overwhelming return in the long run. Seeing this requires long-term thinking, and unfortunately Israel’s political class thinks in even shorter time frames than its counterparts in other developed countries. There is a limit how much politicians are willing to invest in projects that generate tangible results a decade down the road: politicians tend to think about the next elections and tomorrow's headlines.

The quality of Israel’s universities will therefore, to a large extent, hinge on private donations – as have the leading universities in the U.S. Such donations in turn depend on potential donors' perception of how good Israeli universities already are, and how much better they could become in the future.

There are those who have been committed to helping Israel for a long time. But Israel’s universities might well suit the vision of the younger generation of Jews in the U.S., Europe and Israel who no longer connect to traditional models and institutions of philanthropy. They want to know exactly where their money goes, and what the impact of their donations will be. They might find that they can both help Israel’s universities become world-class leaders, and contribute to humanity’s future by supporting the creation of tomorrow’s knowledge and technology.