Friday, 30 November 2007

Israel's Latest Conflict: Paying for Higher Education

Universities are roiled by strikes as the government wrestles with how to finance a strapped system

From the issue dated November 30, 2007



The founders of the modern state of Israel considered higher education to be so important that they established the country's first two universities long before the country itself came into existence in 1948.

Today Israel's higher-education system is in crisis, brought to a standstill twice this year alone by student and faculty strikes over tuition, salaries, and controversial government reform programs.

In the past six years, the government has slashed its higher-education budget by 20 percent even as student numbers have soared. Consecutive governments, along with some heavyweight thinkers, have offered conflicting visions of the future: One group imagines an American-style system in which students shoulder a large proportion of their educational expenses, while another argues that the country's vitality rests on its intellectual capital and thus the government should support higher education generously. As the debate rages, many academics here fear that the People of the Book have lost the plot.

"When the university started in 1925 it was one of the crowns of the Zionist venture, a major event," says Menachem Magidor, president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "We're doing world-class research and we've created a world-class institution. But the running of the university is not fulfilling a national mission anymore. Now the feeling that I'm getting from the attitude of the government and the public is that it's in some sense my private business, my private ambition."

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Israeli government spending on higher education in relation to the number of students, GDP, and population growth fell from one of the highest among developed nations to one of the lowest between 1998 and 2007. Today it ranks near the bottom; only Greece is lower.

Meanwhile, tuition, which is regulated by the government, was the sixth highest among the 23 nations reviewed by the OECD in 2005, despite a 25-percent cut in tuition five years earlier.

Mr. Magidor says his university has coped with shrinking government support by expanding class sizes and reducing staff. Some classes have grown from a maximum of 25 to a maximum of 40 students. Building maintenance has been deferred because that budget has shrunk by 30 percent. Student papers are no longer graded regularly each week because the university isn't able to hire enough graduate students to help with the task.

"Definitely, the students feel it," Mr. Magidor says. "The quality of the education is declining. There is less attention to the individual student."

Such belt-tightening has not yet had an effect on some key measures of academic quality. Gideon Czapski, a retired chemistry professor at the Hebrew University, publishes an annual report that shows Israeli scientists consistently at or near the top of world rankings of articles published and cited across a range of fields, including computer science and economics. He agrees that the budget cuts are affecting standards, but says it is too early for the problems to show up in statistical analyses.

"Let's assume that the crisis is due to a shortage of funds for equipment and for hiring young new people," says Mr. Czapski. "The majority of people in the universities are still there and the equipment is still operating, so there clearly will be a delay before it shows in the indices."

Immigration and Intifada

The roots of the current crisis can be traced back to the early 1990s, when the rapid immigration of more than one million Jews from the former Soviet Union fueled a sudden demand for higher education.

The government authorized the establishment of a network of colleges to absorb the new students. The number of undergraduates across Israel leaped from 92,530 in 1995 to 155,895 in 2004. Fifty percent of young Israelis now attend college, up from about 30 percent in the mid 1980s.

At first the government matched higher student enrollments with more money, but then new economic policies were introduced by the Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999 and then as finance minister from 2003 to 2005.

Mr. Netanyahu encouraged the privatization of publicly owned companies and cut government spending, including spending on education.

The Labor government of Ehud Barak, prime minister from 1999 to 2001, appointed a commission to look at college tuition. That commission recommended cutting the fees in half. The government agreed in 2000 to cut tuition by 25 percent, planning to make up for that lost revenue by returning government support to earlier levels.

But the second intifada broke out in September 2000, freezing all new spending. Mr. Barak lost a general election, and Mr. Netanyahu refused to restore government financing, a decision he had the power to make when he became finance minister. Colleges and universities were thus hit by a double blow: shrinking tuition revenue and less government support.

Over the next few years, university leaders grew frustrated and lobbied for either a restoration of government support or permission to raise tuition.

Against that backdrop, a government-appointed committee was formed in 2006 to consider a wholesale reform of higher education. A report last July by that panel, led by the former finance minister Avraham Shochat, recommended raising tuition by 74 percent, from $2,125 to $3,700; introducing a student-loan system; and restoring the government support cut during Mr. Netanyahu's administration.

The report triggered widespread student protests and has lain on the shelf ever since.

Different Visions

Today, Israel's most influential thinkers on higher education are divided over how best to strengthen the system.

Gury Zilkha, an economist who served as a senior official in Israel's Council for Higher Education, was the main technical adviser to the Shochat Committee.

"Israel is more or less going toward the Anglo-Saxon model," he says, "which is not to depend totally on government funding, to give the students a reasonable increase in tuition fees and decide on compensation schemes for funding the students so those that are on a low socioeconomic background will be able to participate in the system. Then we plan on creating a multilayer higher-education system, which consists of elite universities, colleges, and community colleges."

But Rabbi Michael Melchior, chairman of the Knesset's Education Committee and a minister in the Barak government that approved the tuition cuts, says the Shochat proposals are unworkable and will deter, not encourage, students from low-income families who seek to enroll in college.

Most students, he notes, enter college after three years of army service, many already married and needing to work to support young families. These students won't want to take out loans because they won't want to burden themselves with debt at that stage in their lives, Rabbi Melchior argues. He says the government should simply put back the money it took out six years ago, instead of taking it from students.

"Israel is not a poor country," he says. "We have zero deficit in the state budget. We have a surplus. These are the years we could use it to really create an educational foundation for the next 10, 20, or 30 years. And we're just blowing it."

One prospective leader says he'll restore government contributions if he gets into office. Avishay Braverman served until last year as president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Beersheba. During his 16-year tenure he saw enrollments double, to 17,000. A former division head at the World Bank and an internationally renowned economist, he was elected last year as a member of the Knesset with the avowed intention of becoming prime minister.

Mr. Braverman says it is time to reorder Israel's national priorities, with education at the top. "Israel is not America," he says. "This is the mistake of the officials in the Finance Ministry who don't understand. For small amounts of money, for a couple of hundred million shekels, they have diminished the honor and respect of the academics."

"The economic payback is clear," he adds. "For me what distinguishes Israel is not the physical survival of Jews in a troubled land surrounded by a billion Muslims. It's the creation of something unique. It's something to do with values of justice, of solidarity and the highest regard for education, for culture. This is what was the essence of the Jew ­ the People of the Book."

For now, the book remains firmly closed. The start of the academic year has been delayed for a month by a continuing strike by senior faculty members, and university officials are warning that the entire year might be lost. The attention of Ehud Olmert, the present prime minister, is focused on peace talks, the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb, and a raft of personal corruption scandals.

University reform has slipped down the national agenda, and no one seems to know how this story will end.
Section: International
Volume 54, Issue 14, Page A27 In

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