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The changing world needs a different academic system

Does academia have the courage to make the changes that are required, or will institutions be swept aside and left to gather dust?
Tel Aviv University. (CC BY-SA/ MathKnight/ Wikipedia)
Tel Aviv University. (CC BY-SA/ MathKnight/ Wikipedia)

Israel’s higher education system is entering yet another academic year out of breath and exhausted.

This stands in stark contrast to its history, throughout which the academic world has led the way to enlightenment.

But the gap between what the academic system is capable of offering and the actual demands of an ever-evolving reality driven by the need for change is fast becoming a chasm. If the academic system does not redefine itself and redefine its scientific and social functions accordingly, it may find itself swept to the side of the road, like a weather-worn, irrelevant signpost.

A necessary condition for the change required from academic institutions includes a courageous unwavering acknowledgement that ownership and control over knowledge have been denied to them, without being assigned to another body. Knowledge is now a fully open repository, exposed to all to begin with, and is accessible to all who are in search of it. Recognizing that will free academic institutions to embark upon a process which demands two major changes.

  • The structure of academic institutions. The “classical” subdivision into faculties, departments, schools and disciplines no longer aligns with the new characteristics of knowledge and its dispersal.

Scientific and vocational training is becoming more and more specialized. This is a one-way process, and even though many of us academics look upon it with disdain, there is no escaping it. In this situation, there is no point to the dogmatic preservation of a fixed structure. Research and teaching are supposed to be conducted in functional, dynamic, and, in many cases, even virtual units. The inter-organizational frameworks that have been employed in recent decades in academia are, in fact, a preparatory step towards a more profound change, where “inter-disciplinary” inevitably takes place in retrospect. There should no longer be separate “fields,” and we should consider merging fields from the outset.

  • Methodology. Namely, the urgent need for significant changes to teaching methods alongside the development of new innovative teaching and learning approaches.

Such attempts have been recently pursued in various academic communities in Israel and abroad. However, they must be reflected in the formal structures of the academic degrees we offer our student body. The schematic division into bachelors and masters degrees, the tasks required for obtaining a degree, the curriculum, the years of learning — all these seem at times like museum artifacts. It is evident that the new generation of students experiences a growing sense of alienation from the current structure of academic studies.

A substantial amount of courage is therefore required, both from the academic institutions and the bodies who regulate them. Such courage should be aimed at rethinking the meaning of an academic degree and its relevance to a student’s future. As we embark upon a new academic year, we should adopt the phrase coined by the late Yitzhak Ben-Aharon: “Dare to change before calamity ensues.”

About the Author
Prof. Shlomo Biderman is the president of the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo and Chairman of VARAM – The Board of Public Academic Colleges in Israel.
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