Together, we’re better

Attracting top international students is part of Israel’s renewed commitment to cooperation and excellence, explains Joseph Klafter

July 1, 2010

It is time for Israeli universities, including the one I head, Tel Aviv University, to increase cooperation and joint projects with international universities based on common interests and research strengths.

Israeli universities should forge practical partnerships that involve student and faculty exchanges in vital fields. Such frameworks can be supported by local philanthropists who have a connection with the participating institutions. Joint degrees are also a possible avenue for future collaboration. Universities are already collaborating in fields such as renewable energy, neurodegenerative diseases or nanoscience. Several other areas are ripe for collaboration.

As a professor of chemistry, I have had the pleasure of hosting many postdoctoral students from Europe. These wonderful scientists have become friends of mine and of Israel. In fact, many of the students and faculty that my colleagues and I have collaborated with now stand at the forefront of opposing efforts to derail the free exchange of thoughts and ideas on campus by imposing academic boycotts.

One recently established programme that exemplifies the new approach is BIRAX, the Britain-Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership. Funded by the Pears Foundation, private donors and the British and Israeli governments, the partnership in its first year awarded grants to 15 joint projects between British and Israeli researchers in areas ranging from bioengineering to particle physics and archaeology. This commendable initiative, which is administered by the British Council, received an overwhelming response to its first call for proposals in 2009 – more than 180 joint project proposals of the highest academic standard.

Moreover, BIRAX’s competitive, peer-reviewed selection process provides a similarly beneficial counterpoint to the politically motivated academic funding of many governments and organisations today. Transparency and fairness should prevail in Israel’s international academic dealings.

One of the challenges of this new approach is the need to attract more top international students to attend Israel’s universities. To do so, we need to offer more opportunities for students to study in English. These students can and will become goodwill ambassadors for Israel in their home countries. As part of their curriculum, they typically tour the country and meet business, political and diplomatic figures, thereby gaining a wider and more balanced view of Israeli and Middle Eastern affairs. Our local Israeli students also gain from their exposure to international students and to more globalised perspectives.

My university has launched a number of postgraduate programmes and we have been surprised by the interest in places as far afield as Africa and Asia. I have no doubt that the perception of Israel as the “start-up nation” is a contributing factor in explaining the response to our programmes. One student from South Africa, who is attending our Sofaer International MBA programme, described Israel’s pull: “If you look at the start-ups and inventions that come out of Israel, the statistics just jump out at you. As a learning experience, Israel is a place where I can learn more than anywhere else.” These sentiments are shared by fellow students from India, Europe and North America. Similarly, our master’s programme in conflict resolution and mediation is in high demand.

The challenge, though, is securing the resources to help these students come to Israel. We need a fellowship programme such as the US’ Fulbright or the UK’s Chevening. The new generation of African public health and plant science specialists under the Pears Scholars programme at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is one such example. The 1,000-plus physicians and medical professionals from developing countries who have attended postgraduate training courses at Tel-Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine, with funding from Israel’s foreign ministry, is another. The longer-term impact of such cross-cultural academic sponsorship programmes, both intellectually and in terms of image-building, cannot be overstated.

The effort to expand, and celebrate, Israel’s international academic relations has begun. This is not, as some of Israel’s critics harshly suggest, an attempt to “rebrand” Israel. Academic collaboration based on shared excellence has been a hallmark of Israeli academia since the state was born. We must now renew long-standing cooperation agreements with universities abroad and we must find new and effective ways to build bridges through academic collaboration.

Joseph Klafter is president of Tel Aviv University and former chair of the Israel Science Foundation.

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