Opinion |

The Israeli Bar Exam as a National Parable

A staggering 81 percent of graduates from 10 academic institutions failed the most recent Israeli bar exam. Greater transparency will force these institutions to up their game

Dan Ben David
Dan Ben-David
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ILLUSTRATION: Israeli law students celebrate after passing bar
ILLUSTRATION: Israeli law students celebrate after passing barCredit: Michal Fattal
Dan Ben David
Dan Ben-David

The percentage of Israelis with academic degrees is higher than nearly all other industrialized countries. But the country’s labor productivity rate is among the lowest in the developed world. This would appear to be a fundamental contradiction – until one understands what happened to us in our race to prosperity.

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Israel’s national penchant for short cuts has led to an all-out sprint in pursuit of degrees rather than knowledge. It doesn’t matter what one studies, nor the level of the institution or academic department: The most important thing is to obtain that coveted piece of paper, the one that opens the door to wealth and happiness – except that this is not how it works.

The turmoil begins when graduates in Israel begin looking for work. Private firms in a fiercely competitive global economy don’t have any choice but to distinguish between graduates according to their depth of relevant knowledge. In most disciplines, there are no clear barometers measuring the tremendous knowledge gaps that exist between graduates from different institutions.

But one discipline that does test all of its graduates is law – which provides a national parable for a country that has lost its way. Each publication of the bar exam results is invariably followed by a plethora of complaints about the exams’ seemingly intolerable levels of difficulty, discrimination, and more. There is some validity to these grievances, but the arrows are pointed in the wrong directions.

In the most recent example, from this past summer, just 32 percent of law graduates taking the bar exam actually passed it. But as is evident in the accompanying graph, the problem is not with the exam but rather, the overwhelming majority of those taking it.

Some 72 percent of graduates from four institutions, which accounted for 14 percent of all examinees, passed the exam. And there were three additional institutions where between half and two-thirds of graduates passed the exam.

The problem lies in the 10 remaining institutions, from which 71 percent of the examinees graduated: Over 80 percent (!) of these graduates failed the bar exam.

How is it possible that there are so many dreadful academic institutions in Israel? The problem begins long before academia. Israel’s elementary and secondary school system is one of the worst in the West, with about half of all pupils receiving a Third World education. Most of them have no chance of accessing high quality – or even sufficient – academic studies. These unlucky souls then reach academic institutions, including some very expensive private ones, that market illusions to fill their classrooms.

The solution, at least at the academic level – if not the elementary and secondary ones – is transparency. Israel’s Council for Higher Education must require every department in all of its institutions to provide each person requesting application forms with data on the wages and employment rates of its graduates for each of the three previous years. The Central Bureau of Statistics can provide such data independently, which will compel each institution to improve the quality of its studies so that students will consider applying to it.

Prof. Dan Ben-David is an economist at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Public Policy and heads the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research.

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