Israeli University Enrollment in Tech-related Majors Soars

Law and business schools see drop in popularity due to government incentives and changing job market

Students at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, March, 2019.
Emil Salman

Israeli institutions of higher education have become factories for techies and teachers, data issued last week by the Council for Higher Education in Israel showed.

The figures, released a month before the start of the academic year, showed that one out of every four undergraduates is studying engineering or computer science.

It was the second year in a row that engineering programs had the highest enrollments in Israeli colleges and universities, replacing the long-time leader of social sciences.

Over the past decade the number of computer science students soared 84% to 16,700 (including students of mathematics and statistics) while the number studying the social sciences fell 17%. The number pursuing law degrees dropped 22% while the number pursuing degrees in business plunged 20%.

The number of undergraduate students in the humanities, which have long been out of favor, also continued to decline, the council said.

The total number of students in higher education rose just 7% since 2009 to 190,648 in B.A. programs in 2019. Growth in enrollment has slowed to a halt and even declined in recent years. This means the increased popularity of tech-related programs has come at the expense of other courses of study.

The only non-tech fields that saw significant increases in student numbers were teaching and medicine. Enrollment in teacher-training programs grew 40% over the last decade, the council said, to a total of about 32,000 students.

The trend reflects the realities of the Israeli job market. High-tech is Israel’s premier industry, thanks to thousands of startup companies. It pays high salaries and offers career options other sectors of the economy can’t match. Law and business gave suffered a glut of graduate in recent years, deterring job prospects.

In response to student demand as well as to concerns about a shortage of professionals that was crimping the tech industry’s growth, Israel’s universities and colleges have expanded their teacher-training programs. The government and the council have stepped in with incentives for students and schools.

“Thanks to our incentives to institutions and the expansion of facilities, we’ve revolutionized study in Israel,” said Prof. Yaffa Zilbershats, chairwoman of the council’s planning and budgetary committee.

“This is a significant change for the higher education system, that has a huge impact on the Israeli economy,” she said.

Among other things, the schools now receive an average of 45,000 shekels ($13,000) for each student enrolled in an engineering or computer science program, up from 38,000.

Assistance for business students, meanwhile, was cut to 15,000 shekels from 18,000.

The council also budgeted 100 million shekels for new and expanded facilities and for research and development.

Zilbershats said the council was determined to continue expanding high-tech programs, for which it has budgeted 700 million shekels since it began the undertaking in 2015.

This year, institutions of higher education are being offered one-time grants of 1.5 million shekels each if they boost tech enrollments by more than 30 students each year. Institutions that increase female enrollment by 15% are entitled to additional money.

Prof. Ido Perlman, the council’s vice chairman, said the council was readying plans to promote humanities studies by, among other things, integrating them with other academic fields.

Interest in engineering programs began to rise 20 years ago as interest in the humanities began a sharp decline. The trend was helped by the establishment of a handful of engineering colleges, such as the Holon Institute of Technology.

While both tech and teaching are attracting record numbers of students, the admission requirements for technology programs are extraordinarily high, while those for teacher training have been falling, not even requiring applicants to take the psychometric exam.

Demand for teaching degrees has been rising in recent years as new collective bargaining agreements have boosted starting salaries to 8,300 shekels a month for high school teachers.

Demand for teachers is rising quickly, but the quality of applicants has been falling.

Most education graduates study to be elementary school teachers, leaving the Education Ministry wrestling with a severe shortage of good specialized instructors for middle and high schools.