My children are reaching college age at an inauspicious time. My oldest daughter, Mizmor, matriculated last fall. My son, Asor, will start his studies in three years or so, when he completes his army service and, most likely, spends the usual year traveling overseas.
Higher education is one of those issues that Israeli governments like to procrastinate about. Put out fires and fix leaks but don’t make any long-term policy commitments—that, in the big picture, has been the approach for the last decade. And, as with our sharply dwindling water supply, a disaster is about to happen that will be difficult to reverse.
As Dan Ben-David, a policy scientist from Tel Aviv University, points out (not for the first time) in today’s Ha’aretz, nearly one half of the senior faculty at Israel’s research universities are aged 55 and up. Over the next decade these people will be retiring, and most of them will not be replaced.
These scholars began their academic careers three to four decades ago, when building up a strong university system was a national priority. They have trained today’s young scholars. But because of budget cuts, and because governments have not been willing to make long term commitments that the country’s higher education policy-makers can depend on, the number of academic positions has declined. The next generation of students—the generation my children belong to—will be studying in a system that is in decline. The generation after them will be taught by a much less qualified, and much more limited, set of teachers.
At the same time, higher education here, as in the rest of the world, is becoming more and more focused on training students for high tech, business, and legal jobs. The liberal arts are in decline; humanities professors find themselves teaching fewer and less qualified students.
In combination, these phenomena mean that, unless priorities are changed quickly, the Israel my children will raise their children in will be an economically successful but spiritually and intellectually depressed society.
Mizmor, I’m happy to say, is out to fight depression—she’s studying animation at Sapir College, in Sederot. That’s the town Hamas and the Islamic Jihad lob their Qassam rockets at. Three weeks ago a student was killed by one of them. The symbolism of this campus, where students learn under fire, is a little too symbolic for comfort. Our universities are in peril, but the main threat comes from Jerusalem, not from Gaza.