Israeli academics nervous about direction of travel

How will the complexion of Israel’s coalition government affect its universities?

August 22, 2015
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beersheba, Israel
Source: Alamy
Unease: a faculty head at Ben-Gurion is concerned about political interference

Scholars in the Israeli academy have spoken of their anxiety about what budget cuts and possible ideological intervention will mean for higher education in the country.

Plans announced earlier this year would have meant a cut to the higher education budget of approximately 260 million Israeli shekels (£43 million). Although negotiations and lobbying have since reduced this by about 60 per cent, David Newman, dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, believes that it still represents a worrying trend.

“Universities felt we hadn’t really got back to where we were 10 or 15 years ago,” he explained, although fears of a brain drain had led to policies that meant that “at least we were moving in that direction – and now along comes a government with a new round of cuts”.

Dispiriting signs included worsening student-to-staff ratios, new appointments largely “frozen up”, “a decline in the proportion of funding coming from the public purse” and “fewer people giving less” in terms of charitable donations.

Professor Newman is equally concerned about political interference. The minister of education from 2009 to 2013, Gideon Sa’ar, he said, had gone in for “a far greater degree of political and ideological intervention than there had ever been in the past under either left- or right-wing ministers of education”. This had led to concerted efforts to close his own department of politics and government “under the guise of academic standards”, which only “an international outcry” had prevented.

Similar things could happen, Professor Newman feared, under the current “extremist right-wing education minister”, Naftali Bennett, who had also been known for “criticising universities like my own for its left-wing critical faculty. In his election campaign, he made a great deal about jumping on the back of [BGU’s] famous politics department, [and the] funding [of] public institutions where people are criticising the state and so on.”

Aron Shai, who has just stepped down as rector of Tel Aviv University, also had a number of worries.

The make-up of the new government might well encourage it to invest “over the green line” in the West Bank (notably in the controversial Ariel University) and in colleges designed to improve access.

Yet Professor Shai felt that “ministers, and particularly in this government, are not always aware of the need for cutting-edge advances in research. You need to differentiate within the sector to take account of those who can deliver the goods as far as research, patents and innovation are concerned and to push universities up the world rankings.”

As a rector, Professor Shai added, he had been “very liberal in giving permission for various demonstrations of groups or lobbies”. He suspected that “this government has much less patience – even compared with the former right-wing government – for total freedom of expression on campus as far as political issues are concerned”.

matthew.reisz@tesglobal.com

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