Higher Education, Quo Vadis?

In order to address the present and future challenges effectively, Israel’s higher education system needs to be upgraded to Version 2.0

The Council for Higher Education of Israel (CHE) has reached the end of the line, having lost its shine and part of its independence. It is now perceived by the higher education institutions as conservative, slow to respond and overly bureaucratic. None of the secondary reforms implemented by the CHE, as necessary as they may be, can replace an all-inclusive reform of the core issues.

The first step is to restructure the CHE and its Planning and Budgeting Committee (PBC) within the framework of the current higher education law. Legislative amendments at this time would cause more harm than good. To use a technology-inspired analogy: we need CHE 2.0: an organization with a functional and goal orientation, as well as implementation capabilities.

Higher education institutions across the globe are facing multiple challenges, such as changes in the patterns of governance, the changing patterns of demand for higher education, the re-shaping of knowledge and teaching-learning strategies, a new approach to learning environments and the changing requirements of the labor market. The global challenges are exacerbated by local ones, such as a decline in the number of students, triggered by demographic changes, delayed start of undergraduate studies to an older age, more opportunities for pursuing academic education abroad or online, and outflow of Arab students to studies in Arabic-speaking countries.

The policy employed by the CHE is another local challenge since it is a regulator of Israel’s higher education system. I would like to argue that it is high time for the CHE to adopt a new, agile system-wide perspective concurrently with quite a few organizational changes.

Despite the commendable attempts which the CHE has been leading in recent years, such as making higher education more accessible to the ultra-orthodox sector and the Arabs, introduction of global remote learning platforms as well as the “New Campus” vision, these initiatives are too few and sporadic. An all-inclusive and cohesive strategy is required, one that would enable a more flexible, creative and open dealing with the challenges posed by the higher education system.

One of the major changes I propose is about the nature of the  representatives of various types of academic institutions who serve as members of the Council. Rather than active faculty members, these representatives should be retired senior faculty members with strong experience in academic management (at minimum a dean level). They should be free to engage in ongoing work of at least half-time position and will be remunerated for their work. They will be elected by the CHE chair (the minister of education) based on the recommendations and approval of  the chairs of the forums of universities and three types of colleges. This would make the CHE more professional, more efficient and freer to engage in ongoing work as well as with a better strategic understanding.

Another important change is the increase of institutional autonomy for those that display an adequate work record. While the CHE has been discussing this for several years, no real measures have been taken, in particular vis a vis the colleges. Instead, cumbersome quality assessment and accreditation processes are the CHE’s key ways of overseeing the system. The CHE needs to let go of unnecessary work, which only makes it slower for the institutions to adapt to changes, introduce innovation, and  respond to dynamic needs. 

Another much-needed direction, which the CHE and its PBC) have recognized too, is “academic flexibility”. This transformation, which is increasingly taking place across the globe, allows the introduction of various types of accreditations and cross-institutional degrees, launching of innovative programs, flexible work for faculty employed by several institutions, and alternative structures for academic degrees.

Changes required in the PBC work include: (a) creating incentives for consolidation of smaller institutions into larger academic centers; (b) replacing the outdated per-capita budgeting system with a new model that encourages excellence in research or teaching rather than being based on the number of students only; and (c) active involvement in collective faculty employment agreements, including full reimbursement of the wage increases this would entail.

A higher education system warrants a professional depth and multiannual planning where all parts fall into place like a puzzle. The academic world calls for a new strategic perception, backed by better implementation skills, and relying on a larger budget. Only by looking into the longer term can we continue to advance the human capital of Israel, both on the individual level, and on the national-social-economic level, to ensure that Israel is capable of grappling with the numerous challenges ahead. 

About the Author
Prof. Tamar Ariav is the President of Beit Berl College
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