Access debate divides academics

April 3, 1998

A decision to raise entry requirements for most students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem has provoked debate among academics.

Opponents of the move point out that universities are already perceived to be distant from the public, and that the Hebrew University, in particular, can ill afford to reinforce its image as an ivory tower.

One critic said: "If standards are to be raised, then they should be raised for all. The university gets most of its funding from the government and we therefore have a responsibility to the taxpayers to facilitate access to higher education, not restrict it."

Although opposition to the raising of entrance standards has so far been sporadic and disorganised, with the relevant changes being passed through the university's senate without protest, several departmental heads have recently gone on record as having reservations about the plan.

Those voicing their objections are quick to point out that they are not opposed to raising standards per se, only to the method chosen. "Nobody has even looked at lecturing standards or student support levels at the university yet. We should begin by looking inwards at our own performance before being more selective about who we allow in to classes," said one lecturer.

Opponents have accused the university's president, Menahem Megidor, and its rector, Menahem Ben-Sasson, of promoting elitism. The two have made no secret of their desire to raise standards, a policy which is seen as a reaction to the previous president who sought to increase enrolment.

Supporters of tougher entry requirements have claimed widespread support among teaching staff. "We spend more and more time each year trying to bring the first-year students up to a level where we can start teaching them anything useful," said one lecturer.

Completion times for first degrees have been getting longer at premier universities over recent years. A further motivation to raise standards comes from competition from other universities. Although the Hebrew University has always felt itself to be Israel's top institution, its claim to precedence has worn thin in recent years as the universities at Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beer Sheva (home of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) have forged international reputations for research and teaching.

Questions over the role of the burgeoning college sector has also influenced the debate about standards and functions of different institutions. Professor Ben-Sasson was reported in a local paper as saying that "the colleges will provide higher education for those interested in practical subjects or in a first degree only, while the Hebrew University will invest in quality students who are drawn to higher degrees and research".

His comments both annoyed college administrators, who see their institutions as genuine rivals to the universities, and alarmed university staff who are concerned that those with first degrees from the colleges should have the opportunity to do higher degrees at universities.

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