Israeli Universities to Focus on Big Data, More Minority Students

Council for Higher Education to enlarge academe’s budget in next six years.

Students on the campus of Tel Aviv University.
Nir Kafri

The Council for Higher Education unveiled its grand plan for Israeli academe over the next six years, which calls for an emphasis on big data, more Arab and ultra-Orthodox students, and more students from overseas.

One of the plan’s major achievements is a budget increase of 6.8 billion shekels ($1.8 billion) over the course of those six years, which will increase the higher education budget to about 12 billion shekels a year by the end of this period.

The plan includes an extra 2 billion shekels for establishing research infrastructure and encouraging outstanding scientific research. One of the main goals of this extra funding is to turn Israel into a powerhouse in big data, as well as a leader in basic scientific research and computer science.

Currently, the council said, 70 to 80 percent of the research done at Israeli universities has no practical application. The goal is thus to make this research easily available to other people who might be able to use it. This will require adding infrastructure and manpower in the field of big data, but will ultimately significantly reduce both the costs and the time needed for research in all disciplines.

Another billion shekels in extra funding is earmarked for integrating minorities into higher education, including Arabs, the ultra-Orthodox, Ethiopian Israelis and residents of the periphery. This will bring the total budget for such integration efforts to 2.3 billion shekels. In particular, the plan set a target of increasing the number of ultra-Orthodox students in college from 12,000 today to 19,000 in 2022.

Because efforts to get the ultra-Orthodox into college have generally involved offering them separate-sex classes, the project has many opponents in academe. The fact that the ultra-Orthodox are given special preparatory programs, lasting nine to 18 months, to help them make up the material that other students learn during 12 years of schooling has also aroused considerable opposition.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who chairs the council, explained the emphasis on big data by saying “One scientist’s failed experiment is raw material for another scientist.”

Asked whether academe should be responsible for integrating the ultra-Orthodox into society, Bennett replied, “We have a dramatic national goal, and that’s to connect the ultra-Orthodox community, which has wanted to connect to Israeli society for a long time already. Everyone needs to be more flexible, and that’s perfectly fine. We want to listen to them and understand them. ... The road is very long. The trend is positive, but it will take more than a few years.”

Another focus of the new six-year plan is on trying to bring thousands of students from the United States, Europe and the Far East to study in Israel. An extra 300 million shekels was budgeted for this purpose, raising total funding for this effort to 450 million shekels over the six-year period.

Currently, some 12,000 foreign students a year study in Israel, including both those who do a full degree here (bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate) and those who come just for a semester or a year. The council’s goal is to more than double this, to 25,000, within five years. The main focus will be on getting more students to do advanced degrees or post-docs here, as well as on bringing more students for semester and year programs.

Prof. Yaffa Zilbershats, who chairs the council’s powerful Planning and Budgeting Committee, said the six-year plan also calls for emphasizing innovation and entrepreneurship in teaching. Some 120 million shekels will be invested in developing high-level online courses that will be hosted, together with courses from leading universities worldwide, by the international platform edX. Another 80 million shekels will go toward developing more entrepreneurship labs for students within institutes of higher education.