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A Blow to the Guild of Israeli University Heads

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Aharon Barak, former president of Israeli Supreme Court, attorney general, dean of Hebrew University Faculty of Law, and now head of IDC's doctoral program in law.
Aharon Barak, former president of Israeli Supreme Court, attorney general, dean of Hebrew University Faculty of Law, and now head of IDC's doctoral program in law.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

For anyone who believes in competition and a private market, last Tuesday was a day for celebration. That’s when the members of the Council for Higher Education voted to allow the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya to grant a doctorate in law. Effectively, the college thereby became the first private university in Israel. For the thing that distinguishes a university from a college is research, and from now on, IDC will be a research institution. In the future, it will be able to grant doctorates in other fields and become a full-fledged university.

This glass ceiling wasn’t easily broken. The university heads did their utmost to thwart IDC and even managed to postpone a vote on IDC founder Uriel Reichman’s application for eight years, even though IDC met all the necessary academic standards.

Now the heads of this guild are saying that permitting the college to grant a doctorate “will hurt the balance between the research universities and colleges.” To them, “balance” means preserving their long-standing monopoly, which is funded by many billions of taxpayer shekels yearly. It’s hard for them to conceive of an academic institution that can boast of high achievements without taking a cent from the public, including for doctoral studies.

The university heads even said, with typical arrogance, that this IDC doctoral program is just about “ego and honor, or a raise in salary, while the others [i.e., their own institutions] conduct in-depth, high-level research.” And they complained that the move would “lead to a cheapening of doctoral degrees.” What chutzpah! As if they are the gods on high and everyone else is garbage.

They neglected to mention that the IDC doctoral program in law will be headed by Professor Aharon Barak, the former Supreme Court president, attorney general and dean of Hebrew University’s Faculty of Law, a man whose eminent international academic standing is beyond question. Is this what they meant by cheapening? Nor did they mention that the IDC doctoral program will be required to meet the academic standards of an international committee. Could it be, perhaps, that the IDC degrees will be more highly regarded and more doctoral candidates will wish to do their research there, rather than at their universities? Could that be the reason for their anxiety?

We still haven’t forgotten how, in the early 1990s, the university heads fought against MK Amnon Rubinstein’s proposal to found colleges that would grant a bachelor’s degree to those who’d been kept out of higher education by the universities’ elitist filters. In those long-ago days, only the well-to-do elites from north Tel Aviv and Rehavia were able to get into the most coveted departments. Space was limited and applicants from the periphery and Mizrahim were left stranded outside.

The guild was unfazed by this crude discrimination. It did its best to maintain the monopoly and opposed any expansion of academic institutions. But public pressure was so strong that the revolution eventually got underway. Today all agree that increased access to higher education for all segments of the population via the colleges has been the most important social revolution to occur here. IDC, with its high level of academics, played a central role in this revolution, as a pioneer in the field of private colleges.

Also worth noting is that the powerful guild of university heads would still have been victorious on Tuesday had Education Minister Naftali Bennett – who for the past two years has worked behind the scenes to introduce competition into academia at the doctoral level – had not opposed them. For it’s clear that the competition ahead will lead to an increase in the number of doctoral students and researchers, just as the number of graduates with bachelor’s degrees rose as the number of colleges suddenly mushroomed.

Currently, 60 percent of students attend colleges and 40 percent attend universities. The number of students from the periphery has risen sharply as well, proving that competition and a private market only contribute to social mobility and narrowing of socioeconomic gaps.

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