Opinion

Donald Trump Could Be the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Israeli Universities

Israel could be a global center for higher education. America is giving us opportunity by giving overseas students a cold shoulder

Trump Heights, a new hamlet in the Golan
Gil Eliahu

For the last 20 years or so, Israel has been Startup Nation by virtue of our world renowned high-tech industry. More recently we’ve become Natural Gas Nation because of all the reserves we’ve discovered offshore. It's high time we become Parchment Nation.

No, I’m not proposing we turn ourselves into a world mezuzah power, rather a global center for higher education.

Israelis think of higher education as a public service: we pay tuition but it's subsidized by the government, but the reality is, it’s an industry like any other. Colleges and universities generate huge revenues, they are major employers and they contribute to the economy through the fruits of their research and development.

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The Hebrew University alone has an annual budget of $780 million (tuition, donations, fees, state support and more) of which $193 million goes to R&D. It employees 3,000 people and enrolls more than 10 times that many. It manages an endowment of $510 million. It may not be a dynamic business (who can be in a system so carefully managed by the government?) but it’s a big one.

The thing is, like Israel’s other universities and colleges, its business could be much bigger.

Israeli universities have the assets and reputation to draw students from around the world in big numbers if they choose to do it. The Hebrew University is among the world’s top 200 universities, as the QS World University Rankings released this week showed.

Israel has a total of six in the top 1,000, which isn’t a bad showing for a country of nine million people. In particular areas of study, we do well. The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology is in the top 100 for computer science and Tel Aviv University in the top 150. In economics Hebrew and Tel Aviv universities are both in the top 150. The Weizmann Institute is No. 150 in natural sciences.

Shouldn't these institutions rank much higher? Yes: but a key obstacle to their greatness isthat far too many of its best and brightest academics leave the country for jobs in the United States and Europe.

Prof. Dan Ben-David of Tel Aviv University found that huge numbers of Israelis are teaching and researching at the top 40 departments in various fields at American universities.

It's not rocket science

For instance, the number of Israeli expats in America teaching physics is equal to 11% of those teaching physics back at home in Israel. In computer science, it’s 21%, in economics it’s 23% and in business an astounding 43%.

Three of eight Israeli Nobel laureates in science and economics were working in the U.S. when they won the prize.

President Donald Trump stands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a ceremony to sign a proclamation recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, March 25, 2019
Susan Walsh / AP

Israeli brain power has been harnessed to create a high-tech industry that’s the envy of much of the world. Another way all that gray matter could and should be harnessed is by turning the country into a global center for higher education.

More students and more tuition revenues would require more faculty and make more money available for research and enable a lot of those Israeli academics to come home.

University rankings aren’t the only thing that could turn Israel into a global education center. Israel’s Startup Nation reputation for developing cutting edge technology and the Jews’ reputation for smarts would help, too. However, none of this can happen without an intensive program to build on the assets we already have.

To a degree, some are trying. The Technion has partnered with Cornell University to develop and run a technology college in New York City and another one with local partners in China.There are a handful of programs for foreign students (mainly for Diaspora Jews) and an initiative by the Council of Higher Education to more than double the number of foreign students in Israel, to 24,000 from 11,000 today.

It could be more ambitious; New Zealand, with half Israel’s population, hosts 50,000 students.

The demand is there. The number of students globally studying abroad grew from 2.1 million in 2001 to 5 million last year, and its projected to grow to eight million in 2025. The economies of countries like India and China need more people with skills and training and they have plenty of anxious parents willing to pay for the children to get it (sometimes in the wrong ways, as the U.S. college admissions scandal showed, but never mind, there are lots of anxious parents who play by the rules).

And what about the competition? America is the premier destination for visiting students, accounting for nearly a quarter of the world total. Britain and China are next. They all have excellent universities, alas, many far better than Israel’s, according to the QS rankings.

But thanks to Trump’s crackdown on immigration and the emerging cold war with China, the U.S. is losing its luster. He’s not just stopping people from Central America at the border, his administration is making it harder for foreigners to study and engage in research in American universities. International enrolment at American universities has been on the decline since Trump took office. This is the time for Israel to strike and offer an alternative.

Imagine a few years from now – the new Trump Heights settlement in the Golan will likely languish, but a university campus somewhere in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv of Beer Sheva could have a gleaming new center for international students chock-a-block with young people from every corner of the world. It could be called Trump Tower in honor of the man who made it all happen.