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Startup Nation Stalled in Israeli Academia

Internal data show that the number of Israeli students completing a degree in computer science at all the universities combined stands at 900 per year. This is a painfully small number

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An employee works at a laptop computer at the Jerusalem Venture Partners JVP Media Labs, situated in the JVP Media Quarter in Jerusalem, Israel, on Wednesday, Oct. 21 , 2015.
A high-tech worker in Jerusalem.Credit: Bloomberg

Several days ago, Finance Ministry chief economist Yoel Naveh published a study showing that if you’re seeking interesting, high-paid work, your best bet is to study computer science at one of the country’s universities. Naveh failed to mention, however, that gaining admission to one of these departments has practically become mission impossible, unless you happen to be an Einstein.

In the past decade, as the Israel high-tech industry has doubled in size, the Technion, our flagship technology institute, has kept producing the same number of computer science graduates. Moreover, due to the surge in applications, the Technion has raised the entry criteria even higher while screening out more students already in the program.

Internal data show that the number of students completing a degree in computer science at all the universities combined stands at 900 per year. This is a painfully small number. It barely scratches the surface of the market demand for these graduates. And thus a bottleneck has been created in terms of technological development, which doesn’t exactly befit a so-called startup nation. Yes, one can also study computer programming at one of the colleges, and there are also the veterans of the IDF’s Unit 8200 and some people in other professions who retrain in computers, but all in all it is far from meeting the demands of the industry, which otherwise could have developed at a much greater pace. Therefore, the past decade was essentially a lost one.

Prof. Irad Yavneh, dean of the Computer Science Department at the Technion, tells me that since he became dean, the number of students accepted to the department has risen by 30 percent. But what really counts is the number of graduates, I say, and that figure hasn’t increased since 2006. Yavneh responds that the number of graduates will increase by 250-300 within the next two to three years. In my view, that is not enough. Double that number is needed.

Yavneh says that what matters most is research and development, and for that you need outstanding students who can develop computer software at the highest level, because Israel must be at the very forefront, and the rest of the work can be done by ordinary computer programmers from China, for instance, and this is why raising the admissions standards is the right thing to do. He also says that if the number of students in the classroom were doubled, the level of education would decline. He says the department is already stretched to the limit. To grow it needs a larger budget and more faculty.

I ask: Why not enable people to study from home, via the Internet, and only have them come to the Technion to take exams? He says the level of study would not be high enough. What about the Council on Higher Education’s plan to expand the number of university students by 40 percent in five years? He says he’s not certain it will happen, because the Technion, for one, will not be willing to lower its standards.

It’s all rather frustrating. The goal should be for this industry to employ 20 percent of the workforce by then, rather than the 9 percent that it does today. Instead of 300,000 people working in high-tech, we should have 600,000, which would be a critical mass that would change the face of the economy. And for that to happen, the number of computer programmers will also have to double from 50,000 to 100,000 in that same time. Only then will the high-tech locomotive be strong enough to rapidly pull behind it all the old traditional industries and make them innovative and more technologically advanced – which would in turn make higher wages in these industries possible too.

The Technion unquestionably is an eminent institution whose graduates are leaders of the Israeli high-tech industry. But now it needs to turn its efforts toward doubling its number of computer science graduates while maintaining its high level of studies. And what goes for the Technion goes for the other universities too. The last thing the economy needs is another lost decade.

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