A substantial share of Israel’s economic success and prestige in the international arena can be attributed to the deep knowledge base and new inventions arising from within this small country. Israel’s universities have played a key role in developing cutting-edge research, placing the country among the world leaders in making new discoveries and publishing seminal research findings. However, Prof. Dan Ben David’s findings show that Israel’s national priorities with regards to investment in its research universities exhibited a complete turnaround in the 1970s. According to the study, in contrast to the common perception that the first decade of the 2000s was a “lost decade” for higher education in the country, the long-term trend regarding Israel’s research universities has actually remained quite steady since the turnaround forty years ago.
The twenty-five years between Israel’s independence in 1948 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973 were both formative and challenging for the new country. Refugees and immigrants from European and Arab countries arrived to Israel with few resources to their name. Several wars erupted during this period and food was rationed during the 1950s, while Israel’s infant economy lagged well behind that of developed countries. Nonetheless, by the time of the Yom Kippur War, Israel had seven research universities, staffed by a rapidly growing number – both in absolute terms as well as relative to population size – of senior faculty members. At their peak in the early 1970s, Israel’s universities enjoyed a supply of senior faculty members per capita similar to that of the United States.
Everything has changed since then. The dwindling supply of senior faculty members is representative of the seriousness of this problem. While there were 131 senior faculty members per 100,000 people in 1973, this number had fallen 53 percent by 2010, to only 62 senior faculty members. For comparison, the number of senior faculty members per capita in the U.S. actually increased over the years.
Israel’s population grew quickly (133 percent) between 1973 and 2010. As a larger share of the country’s population chose to pursue higher education, the student population in Israel’s research universities grew even faster, at 157 percent during these 37 years. In contrast, the number of senior faculty positions in Israel’s research universities grew by a paltry 9 percent during the same time period.
Israel’s flagship universities actually had fewer faculty members in 2010 than they had in 1973. Specifically, Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University had 17 and 26 percent fewer senior faculty positions, respectively, in 2010 than they did in 1973. The world-renowned Technion, an institution greatly responsible for Israel’s high tech revolution and success in this realm, also lost 26 percent of its faculty positions in the years between 1973 and 2010.
Over the last few decades, Israel’s higher education policies have changed considerably. While research universities were deprioritized, the 1990s saw major growth in the development of lower-cost non-research academic colleges, with the aim of increasing accessibility to higher education for a greater share of the country’s population. The emphasis on expanding access via academic colleges was not accompanied, however, by a similar investment in faculty at these institutions. When including both universities and colleges in the analyses, Ben-David’s findings show that Israel’s higher education student population increased by 428 percent, while the total number of senior faculty rose by just 40 percent.
While the creation of academic colleges has been important in enabling more people to attain a higher education, the trend towards promoting education in academic colleges rather than universities has a couple negative ramifications. First, there is concern about the quality of education provided by faculty members who themselves are not actively engaged in the latest research. Second, the growing lack of tenure and tenure-track positions may discourage talented individuals from pursuing a research path, either in Israel or altogether.
In recent years, there has been growing recognition of the threats facing Israel’s major universities. In order to address these threats, the government has developed a program of “excellence centers” designed to attract top Israeli researchers. These centers are characterized by greater freedom with regards to compensation levels and reduced teaching requirements for researchers. However, if Israel wants to continue enjoying the economic and social benefits of producing world-class knowledge and research, along with intelligent and capable graduates, it must revisit its support for universities. This calls for a re-evaluation of national priorities towards greater investment in universities, and particularly for increasing the number of senior faculty positions.