Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Despite Promises of Research Funds, Israeli Colleges Feel Slighted

The announcement in April that Israeli colleges will be allowed to seek government funds for research has ended a decade-long battle, but college heads say the war is not yet won.

Colleges here have been fighting the country's eight research universities for accreditation and public financing since the colleges emerged in the 1970s as satellite campuses of the existing universities. Many colleges chafed at being subservient to their parent institutions, unable to make their own decisions.

But with the rapid expansion of Israel's population came growing pressure to offer more options for higher education. In 1995 the colleges were granted independent status and then were placed under the supervision of the Council for Higher Education, which oversees higher-education policy and financing in Israel. By 2006 there were 21 publicly subsidized colleges that couldn't use those funds to back research.

Meanwhile, there was a parallel development of 14 privately funded colleges, beginning with the College of Management Academic Studies, or COMAS, founded in Rishon LeZiyyon in 1978 as a school of business studies. COMAS has expanded into broader academic programs, and with 12,000 students, it is now the largest college in Israel. Private colleges like COMAS are also regulated—but not financed—by the Council for Higher Education.

The colleges helped nearly triple the number of students in higher education, from 76,000 in 1990 to 237,000 in 2010, and now teach a majority of Israeli undergraduates. But public colleges remain tightly controlled both in student numbers and the courses they can offer, including a ban on teaching law.

Aliza Shenhar, president of the publicly funded Max Stern Yezreel Valley College in northern Israel and chairperson of the Committee of College Presidents, has said the two-tier system is unsustainable.

"Strengthening access to higher education, the goal underlying the establishment of the public colleges, created a binary academic system under which these colleges concentrated exclusively on teaching, whereas universities dealt with teaching and research," Ms. Shenhar wrote recently in the journal Kivunim Hadashim.

The system "puts college faculty members at a competitive disadvantage, while also hamstringing the colleges' development and their ability to develop new fields of study," she wrote.

Competing Interests

The colleges' fight for funds coincided with a decade-long crisis, from 2000 to 2010, in which the Israeli government slashed some 20 percent of the budget for higher education.

Shlomo Grossman, chairman of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education from 2003 to 2009, said the colleges received as much backing as possible at a difficult time.

"The main issue while I was chairman was to keep the system working, mainly to enable the universities to run both teaching and research, and the colleges to establish their infrastructure and facilities and to get a body of students," he said. "Due to the shortage in the budget, we couldn't support research in colleges."

Today, Mr. Grossman said, the government is focused on reversing a brain drain that has caused the country to lose 25 percent of its scientists. "The top priority is to bring back the brains that we lost," he said. "The second priority is to help the colleges to continue developing."

But Seev Neumann, president of COMAS, questioned the government's commitment to research financing for colleges. He said he feared the announcement of as-yet-undetermined research funds for colleges was "lip service."

He noted that another recent project, which will provide some $2-billion over the next five years for 30 "centers of excellence" to lure scientists back to Israel, is off limits to private colleges and some public ones.

"Even within the universities, it will create a system where some researchers who are part of the centers of excellence are getting better terms, better equipment, better laboratories than their colleagues," he said. "It's going to create tremendous tension."

Mr. Neumann said he had the flexibility to decide on acceptable salary ranges and was not bound by issues of tenure. But he said the private colleges still suffered from "discrimination." They are banned from offering doctoral degrees and must wait four to five years for new courses to be approved.

Despite these restrictions, the colleges are attracting growing numbers of students and international recognition. Today nearly 15 percent of Israeli students study at private colleges like COMAS, which has a joint business-studies program with the City University of New York and is pursuing more overseas partnerships. The private Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya has a joint master's program in European studies with Heinrich Heine University at D├╝sseldorf, and student-exchange agreements with 40 universities worldwide.

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