The current state of Israel’s higher education reflects a series of past decisions, taken without a long term view, without assessment milestones or adjustment to the circumstances as they change over time.
As a result, higher education in Israel today comprises several tiers of academic institutions, resulting in too many institutions for Israel’s small population. Most of these teach the same subjects and are competing over the same students. This, in turn, leads to fierce competition for students and professors, especially when the demand for higher education is not high.
Until the mid-1990s, universities were at the top of the pyramid, ranked above several academic colleges and academic art institutions. However, as soon as the public and private colleges were allowed to offer programs, the once-clear differentiation has eroded, as has the academic level. The colleges have drawn closer to the universities, becoming academic institutions that offer master’s degrees, thesis and potentially even a Ph.D. They are serving a broad range of subjects and expect their faculty to be involved in research in addition to teaching. On the other end of the spectrum, the universities have drawn closer to the colleges by expanding programs that offer master’s degree without research work. They are teaching professional disciplines (social work, nursing, teaching, etc.) and are lowering the admission threshold for subjects that are in low demand, such as the humanities.
Research and teaching are two integral elements of the role played by universities and colleges, but their mix in each is different.
Universities hold two key advantages in Israel’s higher education hierarchy: image and economic strength. The public still perceives universities as more prestigious than colleges, although many Israelis do not even understand the difference between the two. Most of the public is not even aware of the differences between academic and non-academic colleges or between a state-funded college and a private one.
The economic and academic strength of the universities is due to their size, tenure, higher state budgets, and the availability of unique subjects, such as medicine. The universities also have a well-established fundraising infrastructure. The colleges make up for these shortcomings with fresh thinking and administrative flexibility, innovative teaching, entrepreneurial attitude, community relations and interface with the work market.
Recently, Israel’s Council for Higher Education (CHE) has been trying to redefine the hierarchy of Israel’s higher education. However, these efforts amount to shutting the barn door after the horses have left. They may turn out to be a waste of resources and time and will prove ineffective in helping the system address some of the major challenges. These include the declining demand for higher education (started in 2013 and expected to last until 2023 at the least); the waning relevance of higher education to employment requirements; the relationship between accessibility and academic excellence; gaps in faculty employment conditions; and a rigid, outdated budgeting model.
Hence, a strategic initiative is required, one that would plan ahead at least until 2030. Specifically, we need an overarching organization that will look beyond the important initiatives advanced by the CHE such as “the new campus”, and consider the system as a whole. A broader initiative warrants different structuring of higher education institutions, and consolidating some of the current ones, so as to enable more fair competition in a market that is strongly biased in favor of the universities. Similar initiatives in other countries have proved successful and we would be wise to learn from them.
Cutting back on the number of higher education institutions is vital to make room for larger institutions capable of addressing the changing conditions more effectively. This could be achieved by consolidating institutions into university centers that comprise a cluster of budgeted colleges and even non-budgeted ones. Such an academic center would have significant scale, a range of academic programs and also specializations in specific subjects. Consolidation would also help plan for the entire system (rather than just for the budgeted colleges). To some extent, it may even bridge the large gap between the employment terms of the university and college faculties.
The critical mass of students and faculty, their newly-acquired prestige, economic resilience and internal synergy that could be achieved in these academic centers through academic, administrative and infrastructure consolidation would improve the academic quality. Research universities will focus on master and doctoral degrees with research aspects, train the faculty, and engage in significant research. University centers will focus on first degree studies and master and doctoral degrees with a professional nature. A new distinction will emerge between research institutions and ones of more applicative nature. The budget pie will be sliced differently according to the new mix of teaching and research.
Instead of attempting to sharpen the blurred distinction between the current institutions, I propose to implement a comprehensive systemic reform that would reorganize the higher education in universities and university centers. This would allow us to abandon the current paradigm, which has exhausted its worth, and embrace a new one with a clear direction and potential for growth. Changing a paradigm is not easy. It should be well considered with different scenarios and risk analysis. In a crisis, it is time to think strategically, and dare to make a radical change.