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Israel’s Higher Education Not Making The Grade

By Linda Gradstein | The Media Line

October 18, 2017

Photo: Getty Images
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Report finds that more students receiving degrees, but quality of studies diminishing

More Israelis are getting college degrees—nearly half of men and some sixty percent of women—but the quality of their education is decreasing, which will have significant implications in the future. That is the conclusion reached by a new study, “Report Card on Israel’s Higher Education System,” conducted by the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research.

“This reflects a multi-decade shift in national priorities away from excellence and in the direction of quantity as opposed to quality,” the report’s author, Dan Ben David, told The Media Line. “We have one of the most educated societies in the world, but one of the lowest rates of productivity.”

Ben David explained that in standardized tests called PISA, Israel came 24th out of 25 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, of which it is a member. He said the problem begins in elementary and high school, where the size of classes can reach up to forty students and teachers are not always well-trained.

Israel has six large well-established research universities, but acceptance rates are low, especially in the sciences. A recent report found that two-thirds of computer science jobs in the country remain unfilled due to a lack of qualified candidates.

Only about 65% of all Israeli high school students obtain a matriculation certificate called a bagrut, which is a prerequisite for higher education. While Israel’s population has doubled since the 1970s, only one new university—Ariel University in the West Bank—has been created.

In the past twenty years Jerusalem has thus created private colleges, whose standards of acceptance are lower but for which tuition is higher. But, Ben David elaborated, the fact that these colleges do not teach students to perform research has had a negative effect on overall education levels.

Even in research-based universities, students are being taught by fewer faculty members whereas public spending per student has decreased substantially.

These difficulties apply equally to Arab citizens of Israel, who make up 20 percent of the total population, and the ultra-Orthodox, who comprise around 15 percent of the populace; however, the report found that significant, albeit slow, progress is being made in this regard.

“Within Israel’s Arabic-speaking population, there are considerable differences between the various religious groups and within them, between women and men,” the study found. “Muslims make up roughly 80% of the Arab speaking population. While their men have the lowest academic attainment rate among all men, this rate has nonetheless increased by four-fifths, from 10% to 14%. Muslim women exhibited the largest relative increase by far, from 4.6% to 13.5%.”

The school system for Arab Christians, on the other hand, is considerably better, with over 30 percent of men and one-third of women attaining academic degrees from these institutions.

A regards ultra-Orthodox Jews, the situation is similar. About 25 percent of women, and 20 percent of men acquire academic degrees. Notably, these men often spend much of their youths studying Jewish texts exclusively, thus often have difficulty transitioning to university-level programs which are more secular in nature.

Ben David stressed to The Media Line that the current predicament, unless tackled at the governmental level, will have lasting effects decades from now. “If you look at the past, when we built universities like the Technion [in Haifa], we created a situation that yielded six Nobel laureates in science and prepared us for the high-tech revolution of the 1980s,” he said.

“What we do today will determine what the country will look like 20 and 30 years from now.”

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