The Crisis About to Hit Israeli Academia

The lower birthrate in the mid-1990s is about to impact higher education, with a drop in income inevitable and college mergers likely.

A deserted corridor in the humanities department at Tel Aviv University.
Tomer Appelbaum

You can’t argue with the statistics. The number of students at Israel’s institutes of higher education had climbed steadily for decades, especially since the establishment of colleges in the 1990s. But after years of constant growth, academia’s expansion is grinding to a halt.

In 2013, the number of students at higher education institutes was above 305,000. According to the Council for Higher Education’s budget committee, that number isn’t expected to grow before 2020. And although it will resume rising then, it will be more slowly than we’ve been accustomed to.

This is not some far-fetched forecast. The students of the next five years have already been born. Their number is known. This is a fact. Something happened in the mid-1990s that resulted in smaller birth numbers over five or six years.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the parents of this smaller generation were a smaller generation themselves (hailing from the late 1950s and early ’60s). That may have been a reaction to the Israeli baby boom – very high birthrates around the time Israel was established.

The fact that the generation born in the mid-1990s (which will be going to university in the next five years) is a small one was already clear when they were drafted in the Israel Defense Forces. Now the pressure is moving onto academia. And academia, which had been accustomed to steady growth, finds itself having to contend with screeching brakes.

Body blow to the colleges

The numbers are dramatic. At leading academic institutions – like Tel Aviv University and Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan – the student body has completely stopped growing. And they’re the lucky ones. Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva, has lost some 1,000 students in recent years; likewise the College of Management Academic Studies in Rishon Letzion.

For institutions like the colleges, which are funded more by tuition fees and less by the government, a dramatic contraction in student numbers could presage genuine crisis.

The Council for Higher Education and its budget committee are keeping a close eye on the problem of the vanishing student body. But there’s a feeling that there’s nothing anybody can do.

We can’t snap our fingers and find that – poof! – the birthrate 20 years ago was much higher. Also, the rate of entitlement to take the matriculation tests (for higher education) has been around 50 percent for years; apparently the potential for acceptance to higher education among the Jewish secular community is used up.

So, if people can’t be persuaded to have had more kids 20 years ago, and if the main source of students is used up, the main potential source of increasing the student body lies with two segregated groups in Israeli society: the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredim) and Arabs. Hence the education council’s plan to increase the number of Haredi students from 11,000 to 19,000 over the next five years, at an investment of 1 billion shekels ($262 million); and to increase the number of Arab students from the current 14% of the student body to 17% by 2020, at an investment of hundreds of millions of shekels.

Both plans are ambitious and would meet the need to boost Israel’s growth potential, narrow social gaps and lift demand for academic studies.

The only snag is that even if both plans come to full fruition, their potential is limited. Ultimately, they would only partially help compensate for the fact that the number of secular Jewish students stopped growing.

Temptation rears its head

Academia’s halted growth has a lot of implications, first and foremost economic ones. Fewer students means lower income from tuition, which means the academic institutions have less funds. The education council’s budget committee is bracing for the institutes to start running deficits – and to prevent that from happening, it’s been urging them to streamline and reorganize. So expect a lot of cutbacks and vanishing departments over the next five years, not to mention mergers.

The teacher-training colleges are already under a lot of pressure from the budget committee to merge – there are too many of them, they’re too small and their academic level is too low. But this trend will also reach the other colleges in the next five years. At least six academic institutions that are not teacher-training colleges are mulling mergers.

From that perspective, the demographic crisis in academia could produce some welcome results. After 20 years of the Israeli academic world expanding nonstop, with practically no planning, maybe it’s high time to stop, rearrange, find academic combinations that meet national needs and actually plan for the decades to come – which, in any case, will not be characterized by accelerated expansion, as happened in the last few decades.

So for now, cutbacks and mergers are the ticket. But there are other solutions, too.

The question on everyone’s mind is what will happen to acceptance criteria as the number of students diminishes. The temptation to lower standards in order to attract larger numbers of students must be winking at all of the country’s educational establishments.

Quality schools – like the research universities and better colleges – will probably reject the temptation. Instead, they will swallow the drop in students and tuition income without compromising on standards.

Less classy schools might do otherwise. Chances are it may suddenly get easier to be accepted to study law or economics than in the past – unless the budget committee steps in. The council is mulling that very thing: Setting minimal criteria for acceptance to all academic departments, which would apply across the board.