How to Save Israel's Universities

Our universities are still doing well, but this will change irremediably if drastic measures are not taken.

The last week brought Israel's universities one reason to celebrate: Ada Yonath winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry; and one reason for deep concern: the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Technion both fell in The Times' rankings. Israel no longer has even a single university in the top one hundred. How did this happen?

The explanation for Professor Yonath's achievement (in addition, of course, to her extraordinary talent and devotion to research), as she has said herself, is that until the 1970s - at the onset of her career, even during times of economic hardship - Israel's leaders saw higher education as one of their highest priorities.

The explanation for the deterioration in the standing of Israel's universities is that in the last decade the country's leadership has regarded universities as simply another operation that can be made more cost efficient. The numbers speak for themselves: In the last 20 years the student body in Israel has tripled, and now stands at 250,000 (which is more than 40 percent of the relevant age group), a very favorable development. But during the same time period, the number of senior faculty has decreased. Israel now has 4,300 senior lecturers and professors - fewer than in the 1970s, when the population was less than half of what is today and the number of students a small fraction.

Under such conditions, it is no wonder that quality deteriorates. Our students do not have one-on-one contact with professors - not, as some ignorant detractors argue, because professors don't work, but because we teach classes comprised of hundreds of students, who are further deprived of teaching assistants because the universities no longer have the budgets to pay them. In addition, research infrastructure has not been renewed in many laboratories, putting Israeli universities at a disadvantage academically.

The damage that has been done thanks to years of neglect is enormous, but not beyond repair. In terms of pure academic quality, our universities are still doing well, and we remain among the leading nations in the world. But this will change irremediably if drastic measures are not taken now.

Therefore I call upon Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take immediate steps to rescue one of Israel's most valuable assets: our university system. There is a simple, measurable plan that can turn the tide.

More than 25% of Israeli academics teach abroad. Eighty percent of them would be willing to return to Israel, if only they were given an appointment, even if this entails a decrease in salary. Many of them teach at the best of the world's universities, and yet they want to teach and research here, in Israel. The cost of educating a top researcher is enormous. The academics abroad have already been trained, mostly at Israeli universities. In order to capitalize on the investment Israel has already made, these academics must be brought back home.

We must make it a national priority to have 150 of these researchers return to Israel within the next three years, and the price tag is manageable: NIS 150 million a year. The impact would be immediate, as the standing of Israel's universities would rise for the three following reasons: First, the ratio between faculty and students (one of the central benchmarks of quality) would automatically improve; second, we would increase the most important measure of all - the number of citations per faculty; and third, we would improve the internationality of faculty, another important measure.

In the long run, this investment will prove economically profitable. Higher education is big business. Students are willing to pay $40,000 a year to study at universities ranked in the world's top 20. Israel's universities can get there within a few years, if the government starts to see the phenomenal impact of higher education on the economy. This may sound unrealistic, but look at the following datum: When you look only at the quality of research (citation per faculty), Tel Aviv University is already ranked 22 in the world, with the Hebrew University and Technion similarly placed.

For Israel, an elite university system is not a luxury, but a matter of life and death. We are a small country with no natural resources, and we cannot compete with the Far East in manufacturing. Israel will either be a knowledge society thriving on research and development, or it will starve. In dealing with truly existential threats, like Iran, our survival depends on technological superiority, which in turn depends on top-quality researchers. Saving the universities must begin immediately. This is how we can make sure that Ada Yonath's Nobel Prize will not be the last awarded to an Israeli scientist, but one in a long series to come.

Prof. Carlo Strenger teaches in the Psychology Department of Tel Aviv University.

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Previous blog entries by Carlo Strenger:

  • Why Israel's left has disappeared

  • One-state solution is a blueprint for a nightmare

  • A pragmatic vision for Israel's Left: A reply to Benny Morris

  • The future belongs to Jewish liberal universalism, Rosh Hashanah 5770

  • Why Israel must become a secular state: a thought for Yom Kippur 5770

  • Ahmadinejad, Netanyahu and the Holocaust: The ethics of memory

  • What can the Mideast learn from the phenomenon of Obama?