New Plan for Teachers’ Colleges Could Rock Israeli Higher Education

Religous and non-religious are clashing in what is more than a bureaucratic change.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaking in the Knesset, March 28, 2016.
Emil Salman

What appears to be a bureaucratic change — moving responsibility for funding teachers’ colleges from the Education Ministry to the Council for Higher Education in Israel — could change the face of higher education in Israel.

The main issue before decision-makers, specifically Education Minister Naftali Bennett, is that some of the colleges serve specific populations, such as Israeli Arabs or Orthodox Jews. In fact, half of the country’s academic teachers’ colleges serve the Orthodox public. Unlike other institutions of higher education in Israel, they are administered by the Education Ministry’s Council for State Religious Education. In these colleges, men and women study in separate classes and a dress code is maintained.

In all, 19 teachers’ colleges have not been placed under the CHE. Nine have enrollment of under 1,000; one of the criteria for CHE funding is a student body of at least 2,200. Smaller schools must either merge with others or, preferably, become part of an existing university.

Both the Council for State Religious Education and the head of the colleges are opposed to the proposed mergers. One attempt to merge an Arab teachers’ college, a Jewish religious teachers’ college and a third teachers’ college in Haifa was shot down in the early stages.

“The religious colleges are not behaving like institutions of higher education. ... but like teachers’ schools,” says Prof. Yehezkiel Teller, a former vice chairman of the Council for Higher Education, who supported the merger. “They do everything that the Education Ministry ... and the Council for State Religious Education tell them to do. We have many religious students, but after [they graduate] they don’t let them teach in the state religious system unless they have to, because they are math and English teachers, of which their is a shortage throughout the system.” With regard to the demand by the Orthodox Jewish institutions for gender separation, Teller said: “I am also a religious person, and I understand the issue. But they are looking for separation instead of unification, and that is a pity.”

Institutions funded by the Council on Higher Education are required to ensure academic freedom. However, the Orthodox colleges, like the Orthodox public education system, operate according to another law, which affords them autonomy.

The academic teachers’ colleges have so far been operating under an exception to the law on higher education, by granting bachelor of education degrees rather than bachelor of arts in education.

The first official to raise the problem of bringing the Orthodox teachers’ colleges under the funding umbrella of the Council for Higher Education, was the council’s vice chairwoman, Prof. Hagit Messer Yaron, shortly before she was fired. In private conversation she said she felt that bringing the Orthodox colleges in their current form into the council would strike a fatal blow against pluralism in higher education in Israel.

Bennett never disclosed his reasons for dismissing Messer Yaron, but her firm position on the matter of the colleges may have been a contributing factor.

The heads of the colleges do not hide the fact that they would like to see the funding of their institutions move to the Council for Higher Education without having to change their rules. One of the college heads told Haaretz: “I believe the religious sector should strengthen their autonomy. What if after the move we will have to accept a lecturer or student whose lifestyle does not suit the character of the college?”