The intense pace of recent events has almost totally obscured the fact that the permanent faculty in nine public academic colleges have been on strike for the past month — since last week together with over 30,000 students in these institutions. Despite pleas from hundreds of colleagues in the country’s universities, nobody in charge — from the Minister of Education to the Council of Higher Education — has taken the trouble to address this dispute, until two bridging meetings ended in deadlock and mutual recriminations.
This is but the latest in a series of jolts to the autonomy, capacity, and standing of academe in Israel. Clearly something is seriously amiss in Israel’s system of higher education. Unless a concerted effort is made to confront the ongoing stagnation, the crown of Israel’s educational pyramid — and the foundation of its economic and social potential — is at risk.
Institutions of higher education were established well before the creation of the state, heralding a commitment to knowledge, curiosity, and hence to meritocracy. With the creation of the state, the Council of Higher Education (CHE) was established to safeguard academic independence, to plan development and to oversee standards (its Planning and Budgeting Committee was charged with distributing the budget of state-supported institutions). In 1994, then Minister of Education Amnon Rubinstein lead a veritable revolution in higher education by creating a system of colleges that would make advanced learning more accessible, while expanding the avenues and possibilities for quality research. This network of state-sponsored colleges now numbers 20 academic institutions, many in the periphery. They are supplemented by 12 private colleges accredited by the CHE (whose tuition frequently surpasses three times that of state-subsidized colleges and universities). When the 21 teacher training colleges and nine universities are added to this mix, Israel boasts 62 institutions of higher education today.
The number of students in all these frameworks in 2018 reached close to 306,000 countrywide — a 5.7 percent reduction in comparison to 2017 (in fact, despite the substantial growth in Israel’s population, there has been a steady decline in those seeking higher education during the past four years, with universities suffering the most). Today, almost 60% of first-year students are registered in colleges and teacher training institutions, with only 38.4% of incoming students registered in the country’s universities.
The “ivory tower” in Israel is far more intellectually diverse, geographically dispersed and socially varied than at any point in the past. It is also decidedly less equitable. The differences within the university network have grown exponentially over the years (the reputations of the veteran universities in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, along with the specialized Weizmann Institute and the Technion far outdistance those of their younger counterparts in Haifa, Beersheba and Bar Ilan; Ariel is still considered an outlier both structurally and academically, its membership in the Committee of University Presidents a major point of contention). The gap between the research universities and the colleges has widened. The funds allotted to these institutions are glaringly unequal. The parallel growth of private institutions which favor those with means at the expense of the more impoverished has put their state-subsidized sisters at a glaring disadvantage (one, the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, has been accorded the right to grant doctoral degrees and is on the way to becoming a university). Nothing is more indicative of these imbalances than the number, status and income of the faculty in each of these respective institutions.
The permanent academic staff in universities and colleges share the same ranking system and, in broad strokes, the same criteria for appointment and promotion. But the 5,241 members of university faculties bring home a greater net income, enjoy more perks (regular sabbatical, travel and research funds) and teach much less than their 1,781 counterparts in the state-supported colleges (lecturers in private colleges earn substantially more, but do not necessarily have job security). This is the major cause for the ongoing demand of college faculty to equate their income, benefits and standing with those of their colleagues in the universities.
Indeed, from the outset the college network — seen as a second-class substitute to the universities for second-class students — was woefully under budgeted. The assumption was that expanding access to this first rung of higher education could be done cheaply: even now the allocation per college student is only one-third that of a university student. Lecturers were required to concentrate on teaching and to engage less in research: a fallacy which cannot be supported over time if high standards are to be maintained (even the best lecturers turn stale if they are not constantly replenishing their horizons through research).
At the time, it was also falsely presumed that the best minds would be channeled to the universities, while others would be directed to the colleges. Nobody considered then that the number of superb PhDs would far outnumber the intake capacities of the universities, sending excellent graduates to develop careers in the academic colleges. A growing number of superior scholars and students (some of whom hold highly sought-after positions in leading institutions of higher education) are products of so-called second-tier college system.
It was therefore just a matter of time before the gross inequalities between the different layers of higher education in Israel would become unsupportable. The faculty in state-subsidized colleges have now called not only for equalizing salary scales (a formula agreed upon in principle by the Committee of College Presidents and the Committee on Planning and Budgeting of the CHE), but also for equating work conditions and promotion procedures. The current strike is therefore less about income and more about ensuring the same terms for veteran and incoming faculty, guaranteeing work security by not granting college presidents the right to dismiss tenured lecturers at will, and protecting the basic right to organize, to negotiate and — if necessary — to take preventive measures collectively under the umbrella of a national college faculty coordinating council (a memorandum of principles was reached with this coordinating body a year ago, but now the college presidents are insistent that collective agreements be signed on a local basis).
The approach of the responsible authorities has been to do everything possible to break the strike. First, vulnerable faculty in some colleges were cajoled into signing separate agreements. Then, striking faculty have been intimidated, indirectly and directly. And, as a last resort, the powers that be at the CHE and Ministry of Finance have acceded to the demand to review the contentious paragraphs on a case-by-case basis, but not to negotiate a collective agreement for all college faculty with the coordinating committee, as they did only last year with this very same group and with their counterparts in the universities. The complicated — and admittedly exceedingly tedious — details of this dispute have aroused very little public interest and therefore generated even less impetus to reach a resolution.
With a little bit of goodwill this disruptive stalemate could easily have been averted before it festered into a full-blown confrontation. But that may not be the intention. The depressed position of most colleges is just one expression of a policy of undermining the independence of higher education institutions through a systematic application of divide and rule techniques. The encouragement of privatization of some colleges at the expense of state-supported institutions (which drives a further wedge between the advantaged and disadvantaged) is one example; the constant de-bunking of research universities and their staff (or, as Minister of Education Naftali Bennett called them, “the university cartel”) is another. The efforts to force recognition of Ariel University to the potential detriment of research agreements and funds from abroad constitutes yet another, politically divisive, instance. These, when added to the attempt to enforce a code of conduct on university lecturers, have combined into a concerted play for control over a network which, by definition, can only wither when its independence is curtailed.
It is high time that a measure of order and good sense be inserted into an increasingly chaotic and progressively fractious and unjust system (the current five-year plan, favoring disadvantaged populations, foreign students and hi-tech without fortifying the major components of the system is at best piecemeal and skirts many sensitive issues). If only those charged with this task take responsibility instead of diverting their energies elsewhere, it may be possible to construct a more harmonious system of higher education which, by encouraging complementarity, meets socioeconomic needs and preserves the ingenuity that has put Israeli academics at the forefront of global innovation. Settling the dispute in the colleges is an obvious starting point.