Concerns are growing that Israel’s higher education system, that attracts hundreds of thousands to study for their bachelor’s degrees, operates with old-fashioned methods and at an inadequate academic level, ultimately sending the students out into the job market unprepared.
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“In too many places the bachelor’s degree is no longer relevant,” says Gilad Arditi, the chairman of the National Union of Israeli Students. “Everything the students do in three years could be done in less time and with the same effect. We have become a system that provides a lot of content — but does not provide the added value.”
This purported fossilization is what spurred the student union into establishing a new committee of experts, with the aim of bringing the higher education up-to-date.
After working for five months, the committee has come up with a number of recommendations. It calls on the higher education system to take responsibility for its part in encouraging inequality in Israel and recommends steps to modernize the structure of bachelor’s degree studies. One goal of this restructuring is to decrease the gap between different sectors in society and enable inclusionary economic growth.
“The committee calls on the higher education system to recognize its part in creating and preserving the existing situation of unequal opportunity in Israeli society,” the committee’s report states. “The higher education system must ask itself what its role is in a country in which a process of expansion and deepening of socioeconomic disparities is occurring.”
Committee members also recommend developing a mechanism that would allow students to complete a bachelor’s degree in only two years, instead of the typical three, through continuous studies without a reduction in course material. They suggest adding courses that will focus on active learning at the undergraduate level, so students will have practical experience as part of the curriculum, for credit.
“It is impossible to make do with the students only learning technical subjects, passing the time and in the end, when they come to the workplace, they are told: It’s great you have a degree, now sit and start to learn what we really do,” says Moshe Vigdor, the director general of the Mandel Foundation in Israel and a former CEO of the CHE who was also a member of the committee.
“The problem is not just that there is no connection between academia and employment. The entire higher education system — faculty, regulators and the students, too — are in their comfort zone,” says Arditi. “We have a conspiracy of silence here. No one challenges the system because everyone is afraid to change. The point of departure in the system and regulators is that the students will always continue to come. But if the situation remains the same as it is today, then fewer and fewer people will come to the higher education system because it will lose its status, and this is already beginning to happen.”
The committee included a number of senior professors, as well as other public figures, such as Daphni Leef, one of the leaders of the 2011 social protests, and Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein, president of the Feuerstein Institute, who is leading a project to find an alternative to the psychometric exam required for admission to many higher education institutions. Its recommendations have been presented to the Council for Higher Education, and are expected to be discussed in the framework of the CHE’s new five-year plan.
Arditi says the initiative to set up the committee came from the students, who have the greatest incentive to improve the situation. “We see importance in the 10.5 billion shekels ($2.8 billion) the country invests in the system and in the years we spend in it. It is impossible to say, okay, we’ll pass our time here and receive a degree and that’s it. We need to push the system forward,” he says.
A time for new thinking
“What’s absurd is that those who finish high school and enter academia go in reverse. Even the [public] educational system had progressed more rapidly that the higher education system, and whoever goes to a college or university may well find themselves in a more antiquated place than what they had in high school,” says Arditi. “When we were students, they told us that in academia we would stop memorizing the material and really learn, but that is not always what happens.”
The higher education system lowers the level of academic rigor in order to bring in more students, he says. “It is people with curiosity who have moved humanity forward, and if we put out the spark for too many young people in Israel, then they will stop asking why, they will be less active and less interested in what happens around them.”
Vigdor believes that participation in academia can be one way of reducing inequality. “In the present reality in Israel, the system can do more than transferring knowledge,” he says. The universities have further responsibility to outlying areas of the country, minority groups and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Vigdor says that today, a bachelor’s degree is a means to achieve social mobility. The question is, does it have any relevance outside the university?
“There are people who say: ‘We did what you told us. We went, studied for a degree — and now we make 6,000 shekels (around $1,600) a month.’ This is an issue that must be investigated in depth. The academic system is a central tool for social policy,” he says.
The committee’s biggest recommendation for reducing inequality is to develop a multi-year program to make higher education accessible to outlying regions. Before that, it is necessary to do research to know the existing situation of underrepresentation of various communities in higher education, as well as surveying their needs.
The report also recommends examining alternatives to the psychometric exam. The test has been criticized for what some see as a bias against those who cannot afford to take long and expensive preparatory courses and those for whom Hebrew is not the first language.
According to the committee, test results are easily influenced by the candidate’s resources — or lack thereof — and whether they live in the center or the country’s outlying areas. The higher education system needs a selection mechanism that recognizes the growth potential of the candidate, not one that focuses on achievement, they say.
The committee proposes establishing a subsidized network of preparatory programs in the sciences, with preference given to candidates from poorer towns and outlying regions. They say such a program would not only help them to get into college but would also enable them to be accepted into prestigious science programs — something that is currently out of reach for disadvantaged candidates because they do not have the necessary prerequisites.
In addition, the committee suggests establishing seminars to aid students from regions with low accessibility to higher education to attain the academic tools they will need to graduate.
The committee harshly criticizes what they claim are out-of-date teaching methods still used at Israeli colleges and universities. Providing knowledge in itself does not expand the thinking of a person enough, they say. The report states that academia has preserved the same teaching methods it has used almost since its beginning, despite the drastic changes that have occurred in almost every other walk of life.
Sticking to the traditional teaching methods only reinforces the disconnect between the tools and the skills the students are taught, and those needed in the labor market at the end of their studies. It also creates significant difficulty for those trying to find work after graduating, says the committee.
“Too many people lose the spark in their eyes during their bachelor’s degree, because they come to a system that pulls them down, bores them and educates them to mediocrity,” says Arditi. “They understand they only need to receive their diploma and begin playing the game. To bring back their spark, we need to stop trying to placating them and start leading. Academic leadership is not just raising donations, but rather the need to establish a path for the students.”
The higher education system has 300,000 students, and it is clear that not everyone will go on to be academics. Most will take jobs outside the universities, says Arditi. But this is not so clear to the system, and the goal of the universities remains training all students to become academics. In the end, many places sell the students an illusion that says if they just come and study, they will find jobs. But in truth, it is not at all clear that there is a link, which leads to frustration and disappointment among the students, he says.
It is hard to find a job without experience, so many students begin working during their second year in college. The job market is signaling to academia that the world outside works differently, he added.
“They always explain that the higher education system needs to focus on research because it needs to change humanity, but it is impossible to say that in the end the most important thing is to teach statistics in order to prepare them to be researchers. We must understand which skills the higher education system can provide in every field of study in order to send people with a set of skills appropriate for the 21st century into the job market. That is no less important,” says Arditi.