The Times report ranking of global higher education has triggered a chorus of voices concerned about the alleged deterioration of Israeli research universities. Predictably, academic leaders have accused the government for undercutting tertiary education by shrinking budgets. But the reality is more complex than the inflamed discourse suggests.
Yaacov Bergman of the school of Business and the Center for Research in Rationality HUJ, a leading expert in higher education, has maintained for years that the universities were less than candid with regard to the real contribution of the government to tertiary education. In a 2008 article in The Marker Bergman drew the attention to the lack of correspondence between the figures and what the academic leaders say in public. In May this year he questioned the Planning and Budget Committee as to why it did not post its annual reports for the years 2009-2012.
His more recent letter throws additional light on the issue, although it is still unanswered.
Is the Council for Higher Education's Planning and Budgeting Committee giving the State Comptroller the full figures?
To Professor Manuel Trajtenberg
Chair, Planning and Budget Committee
On May 1, 2012 the CHE-PBC released your response as the chairman of committee for budgeting to the State Comptroller's report on the issue of extra-budgetary programs at the universities. Your response, posted on the CHE-PBC website, includes the opening remark:
"In the decade between the years 2000 to 2009 severe budget cuts were imposed on higher education. As a result of these cuts some universities got caught in significant budget deficits."
(See also the report in the Calcalist newspaper.)
But in stark contrast, the Knesset Research and Information Center stated in a report "Funding of Academic Research in Israel," delivered to the Knesset Science and Technology Committee on 23 July 2009:
"when assessing the change in budget [of the higher education system] between 2000 to 2009 in real terms, it is apparent that there is no significant change in the budget: from about NIS 6.31 billion in 2000 to about NIS 6.44 in 2009 - a change [increase] of about 2.2%."
The numbers can be seen in the table below that I copied from this document, the column original budget 2009 prices (in real terms).
Moreover, please note that in the column "budget spent" which shows how much was spent in practice of the government budget which was allocated for the higher education system each year as reported in the table. Note that in 2005 the higher education system spent 90.6 % of the budget it received. That is, this system "which faced severe cuts" forfeited 9% (!) of its annual budget which, an amount of NIS 600 million of the budget of 6.3 billion that the government has allocated to it that year. And in 2002, the higher education system forfeited 12% (!) an amount of NIS 740 million from the budget of NIS 6.3 billion that the government has allocated to it that year.
A system which suffered "severe budget cuts" as you informed the State Comptroller, is highly unlikely to forfeit such huge amounts of money, unless it did not suffer any budget cuts as the Knesset Research and Information Center has determined.
My question to you as the chairman of the Planning and Budget Committee for the higher education system and the official responsible for higher education budgeting:
Can you please explain the clear contradiction between the assessment of the Knesset Research and Information Center, that "from 2000 to 2009 in real terms there was no significant change to the [higher education] budget," and your reply to the State Comptroller that "in the decade between 2000 to 2009 severe budget cuts were imposed on the higher education system."
(Copies to the members of the CHE-PBC, the State Comptroller and others)
Recently, a controversy broke out over the poor achievements of Israeli pupils, compared to elementary and high school students in other countries. However, the research institutes of higher education facilities in Israel are in the "front ranks of the world" - at least according to former Technion president Prof. Ze'ev Tadmor and former Hebrew University president Hanoch Gutfreund in a September 25 article in Haaretz. A recent report by the Higher Education Council's Committee on Planning and Budgets, covering 1998-2000, also reported to the public that Israel is "first in the world in the number of scientific publications per capita."
Is it reasonable that the elementary and high school systems are so bad, while higher education is so good? After all, both systems are connected. The academic staff in the universities are key partners in writing the curriculum for the elementary and high schools and they also train the teachers who implement those curricula. And, obviously, the vast majority of the faculty members at the universities are products of the very same school system that is so problematic. It is unreasonable that such a healthy and successful head can be carried proudly by such an ailing, failing body.
The sorry truth is that the head is also ailing. But the outdated law for higher education grants Israeli universities an independence unparalleled in the world, interpreted by the universities to mean they are free of the need for transparency, and don't have to provide true reports on their performance to the Israeli public, which provides them with a lot of money. Symptomatic of this wall of insulation the academic establishment has built around itself is the stubborn refusal by the Higher Education Council to reveal the minutes of its meetings to the public, forcing Haaretz to go to court for help to overcome that odd refusal.
Universities elsewhere in the world are required to provide the public with reports on their performance. The administrations at prestigious research institutes like Princeton and Berkeley are required by their boards of governors to conduct periodic examinations of all their departments and academic units, by outside committees of experts who then make public those reports, which often are not at all flattering. However, as noted by the Meltz Commission, formed to make recommendations regarding tuition, Israeli university boards of governors are not at all interested in the universities they are meant to govern. The universities are, in effect, run by their academic staff, who vehemently oppose any outside inspection and criticism of their performance.
Even worse, the Meltz Commission recommended to the universities four years ago - at the request of the university heads - to periodically bring in outside experts to conduct examinations of the universities. The recommendations were never implemented and there is no intention to implement them because of opposition from faculty.
Every five years, the British Higher Education Council conducts a survey of research and teaching production in the hundreds of academic departments financed by the British public, and then ranks the departments, issuing the results to the public. The British Higher Education Council also compares achievements by British scientists with the achievements of scientists from competing countries, and publishes those results. The National Academy of Sciences ranks thousands of American doctoral programs on a periodic basis. Like the British Higher Education Council, the National Academy of Sciences compares scientific achievement by U.S. scientists to competing countries and publishes the results. So do organizations in other countries.
Nothing like that happens in Israel. On the contrary. Reports requested by the Israeli Academy of Sciences pointing to a decline in entire scientific areas in Israel have never been published or even brought to the attention of the government. When the Israeli Higher Education Council reports on producing the largest number of scientific publications per capita in the world, it hides the fact that, when it comes to the quality of those publications, Israel is moving into the territory of the average. Those who think the quality of teaching in Israeli higher education is better than that in the high schools and elementary schools are invited to read an article by Wiler and Friedman in Iyunei Mishpat, 2002, where they characterize the teaching of law in Israel as having a "scandalous culture of teaching."
The U.S. Congress's Committee on Education and the Workforce does not make do with providing to the public a detailed report, backed up by data from the universities. This past May, the committee began a series of hearings on the state of higher education in America, asking what parents, students and taxpayers get for their money. It's time for the Israeli public to ask that question of its universities and get credible answers, based on data that can be compared to the best universities in the world.
Dr. Bergman is chairman of the research committee at the Hebrew University School of Business, and a member of the university's Center for Rationality.