An opportunity for academia’s renewed growth

Academia found itself contending with the corona pandemic from a very low and lacking starting point, without hardly any of the up-to-date tools needed to deal with such a situation. The digital leap which this system so direly needed, a revolution that in ordinary times would have taken years, occurred at the speed of light and brought with it innovative distant learning tools. These tools exposed the breadth of the gaps between Israel’s economic, social and geographic center and its periphery, and revealed the weakness of the system and its pale veneer, the social gaps and the understanding that Israel’s academia is no longer as it was before. It is now evident to all: innovation is the name of the game – and this includes academia. An organization or system that does not integrate innovation and new methods into its research and teaching will ultimately remain behind.

On the backdrop of this state of affairs something transpired in Israel: a new ministry was established – the Ministry of Higher and Supplementary Education. Many raised an eyebrow, and there were even those who were annoyed at the “outrageous waste”. As I see it, among all the new government ministries – this was in fact a necessary step that should have already been taken several years ago. Academia deserves a ministry that will advance higher education in Israel and propel it to its worthy place – at the center of Israel’s discourse and activity.

Academia is the State of Israel’s safety net in the world, and one of the cornerstones of its national, economic, social and international resilience. Innovative technology that was developed in the halls of academia, and found worthy and beneficial in the international war against the corona virus, proves that Israeli academia is still alive, breathing and kicking, and can even beget the best out of its researchers and faculty. Therefore, the newly formed government must cultivate and promote higher education, research and innovation.

The newly appointed minister, Zeev Elkin, has a central and crucial role to play in connecting Israeli academia to the forefront of international research, to the future labor market and to the challenges of innovation.

Over the years the Ministry of Education had to extend itself in order to contend with a broad, too broad, span of control, to navigate between early childhood, primary and high school education, to find solutions for special education and informal education, and in general to deal with the myriad challenges of the education system.

By comparison, with a Ministry of Higher Education and a full-time minister it will now be possible to transfer research budgets to universities and colleges. Moreover, the minister and ministry personnel will be able to act to increase incentives for students, mainly for those who choose to study in the Negev and the Galilee, initiate and promote reforms, expand higher education and make it accessible to additional sectors – and perhaps also narrow social gaps in the process.

And then it will happen, and we will witness the growth of a generation of young and innovative researchers, increased investment in research, strengthened academic collaborations throughout the world, the inclusion of academic faculty in professional committees, and the study programs for professions in demand in the engineering, medicine and exact science fields, alongside the development of the humanities and philosophy.

International breakthroughs have been achieved in the war against corona – with Israeli startups at the forefront leading an array of developments for diagnosing corona patients and finding a vaccine for the virus – and all by Israelis who studied, among other things engineering, chemistry and biology. This will engender a sense of unit pride, encourage the young generation to acquire a profession in demand alongside an education, and deliberately choose engineering studies.

Academia can and should serve as Israel’s research laboratory about the new world, as well as a blueprint for higher education systems throughout the world. The time has come for us to really be a light unto the nations. All that is needed is government focus on the needs of researchers and the population of students in Israel.

Extensive work awaits Zeev Elkin, the new Minister of Higher and Supplementary Education. He arrives just as a window of opportunity has opened, and I am hopeful that he will know how to take advantage of the crisis brought about by the corona to advance higher education in Israel, to transform it into the leading academic system in the world – high-quality, research-oriented and accessible to all. A system that is part of Israeli society and a partner to addressing the employment, research and innovation challenges facing the country.

This can be higher education’s finest hour.

About the Author
Prof. Jehuda Haddad is President of Shamoon College of Engineering.
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