The Real Problems with Israel's Newest University

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A few days ago, Israel named Ariel’s University Center as its eighth official university. It should not have done so for several reasons. First, the decision was facilitated because it was based on a peculiar institutional setup existing as a result of its occupation of the West Bank. Second, the decision goes against a basic tenet of academia: judgment of an argument should be based on its merit alone. The erroneous decision is only compounded by the current state of Israeli higher education.

In Israel, there are two different Councils of Higher Education, one for Israel proper and one for the West Bank. The Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria (CHEJS) is in charge of three higher education institutions, where 3 percent of Israel’s students study. As it is in occupied territory, CHEJS falls under the purview of the IDF, so the army appoints the members of the council.

To protest the then-upcoming decision to declare Ariel’s University Center a university, the head of the Council of Higher Education’s Planning and Budget Committee and esteemed Israeli economist, Prof. Manuel Trachtenberg, wrote a letter to the head of the CHEJS, Prof. Amos Altschuler. In it, he contended that the decision was based on shaky foundations—that the question regarding Ariel’s academic standing was made without paying attention to the broader institutional context or asking whether there is need (or room) for another university. Most egregiously, Trachtenberg claimed, the decision to approve the Ariel school was made against the recommendation of the Council for Higher Education—a recommendation made only two weeks ago. (One of many reasons for this recommendation is that there is simply not enough money to go around—Israel’s annual higher education budget is roughly 1 billion dollars, divided between seven—now eight—institutions. It’s not enough.)

In what led up to the final pronouncement, Israel’s Minister of Education and Minister of Finance forcefully backed the decision, both with rhetoric and by promising tens of millions of Shekels in funds to the not yet designated university. This support also demonstrates the grossly unequal treatment granted Israel’s other higher education institutions.

The essence of this decision is just as alarming as its faulty process (which is based in the institutional existence of two councils). When one is asked to consider another’s argument, especially in academia, it is pertinent that the argument be analyzed for what it is. It should not matter if the person arguing is Indian, British or Jewish. Similarly, the decision to elevate an institute to the level of a university should be based on merit, and not on its geographic location or the politics it represents.

Several years ago Tel Aviv University decided that one way to cut costs was to discontinue checking student’s problem sets in mathematics classes. This is representative of the real, fundamental problems caused by lack of funding that Israeli higher education faces. According to Dan Ben-David, an Israeli economist at Tel Aviv University, since the 1970s, the number of senior faculty positions at universities has grown by 12 percent—despite the doubling of Israel’s population since that time. At the Technion, Israel’s MIT, only one senior position has been added since 1973—but student body has increased by more than a quarter. At the Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University, the number of senior positions has actually declined by 14 and 21 percent, respectively.

There is also massive academic brain drain. The number of Israelis in the top 40 U.S computer science departments represents a third of the contingent of academics that remain in Israel. This is a staggering, and illustrative, number when compared to other countries’ academics in the U.S.

To begin to address these very real problems, several things must be done. The current mindset must change – Israeli politicians need to understand that an excellent higher education system, especially in Israel, is not a luxury but a necessity. New positions for research faculty must be added, especially in science and engineering departments. Finally, the institutional structure of how universities interact with the state and how they manage themselves should be examined and reformed. Universities need to be given leeway to conduct their affairs without the current state of excessive intervention.

The naming of Ariel’s University Center as Israel’s eighth university fails on the counts of both due process and what it stands for. It is a shame that Israel is shooting itself in the foot, once again. Not only is it arming its critics but also it shows how far down a path it has gone--no one seems to care about the real issues that deserve serious treatment.