Israelis battle for quality as cuts bite

September 17, 2004

Israel's universities are fighting to maintain the quality of their education and research in the face of continued cuts in government funding.

Since 2001, 900 million shekels (£112 million) has been slashed from university budgets and senior academics fear a brain drain.

Ben Gurion University has suffered budget cuts of about 20 per cent while recruiting an extra 15 per cent of students over the past four years.

Its 2003-04 operating budget of 760 million shekels (down from its original figure of 790 million shekels) is to be cut by 36 million shekels in 2004-05.

Nahum Finger, director of the university's Centre for Research in Higher Education, said cuts of this order were likely to have profound effects, although no departments had yet closed.

"Each year, we balanced our budget but, as a young university, we used up most of our resources," Professor Finger said.

He added: "The first generation of university professors is retiring. Last year, we had 30 faculty members who retired. Their positions were not filled."

Not bringing in young people meant "turning away a whole generation of scientists", Professor Finger said. "We are losing very good people."

He said he feared that the quality of higher education in Israel was falling. "Strong pressure to open up higher education in regional colleges, and cutting budgets, will lead to a decline in higher education.

"Salaries are not that high, the equipment will get older, and it will be difficult to compete for research grants. If it continues like this, it doesn't bode well.

"What scares me the most is the possibility of a brain drain. We have had it in the past," Professor Finger added.

The budget cuts have also affected older universities, such as the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Its government allocation for 2004-05 of 820 million shekels compares with 1.1 billion in 2000-01.

Menachem Magidor, the university's president, said the response had been based on a "combination of academic and economic considerations". "We were trying to do things that were right academically. For example, we eliminated Yiddish as a separate undergraduate programme, although (students) can still take Yiddish as a speciality within the Hebrew literature department."

Professor Magidor added: "We eliminated the graduate school of applied sciences, merging some departments. It is not necessarily something that is so bad. There was a certain level of redundancy. In the long term, it could be academically correct."

In all, ten courses have been either eliminated or merged. Professor Magidor said that Hebrew's budget amounted to 6 per cent of Israel's gross domestic product.

Professor Magidor said that the "issue is not the cutting of programmes, or the elimination of programmes, but keeping their quality".

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