Barred from the ivory tower

From the archive (legacy material)

Dalya Markovich | Haaretz | 15 July 2005

“Akademia besviva mishtana” (“Academia in a Changing Environment: Higher Education Policy in Israel, 1952-2004) by Ami Volansky, Hakibbutz Hameuchad and Shmuel Neeman Institute, 422 pages, NIS 88
University students are a minority group in Israel. But compared to students in other countries on an economic par with Israel, local students are a minority group with few rights and a very marginal place in public discourse. Studies that analyze the state of higher education in this country are also few and far between.
“Akademia besviva mishtana” (“Academia in a Changing Environment: Higher Education Policy in Israel, 1952-2004”), recently published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad, does not help to change things much, although it is filled with facts and figures. The author of the book, Ami Volansky, was the adviser on higher education to four Israeli ministers of education, and the Education Ministry’s deputy director general on policy planning and evaluation. Although the book is based on his long years of experience in an official capacity, Volansky neither adopts a critical stance nor accepts “ministerial responsibility” for any of his findings.
Like some kind of reporter, Volansky launches into a dry, factual account of how society, the government and the scientific community interact. The book opens with a description of the lengthy negotiation process leading up to the passage of the Higher Education Law in 1958. Reflected here are the profound differences in approach between the state and academia in those days. The state wanted to nationalize the higher education system to serve its own interests, while the university demanded academic freedom. Over the years, the academic world has become increasingly entrenched in its ivory tower, investing the concept of “freedom” with new meaning.
In the wake of the education law, Israel’s Council for Higher Education (CHE) was created and ultimately granted a monopoly over policy in this field. In 1974, the CHE established a subcommittee for planning and budgeting, which became its executive arm. The subcommittee was responsible for allocating public resources to universities and regulating the size of student populations. But apart from insuring that universities stayed within their budgets and implemented plans that meshed with national interests, one of its goals (perhaps the main one) was to prevent any changes in the makeup of committee members.
Although the number of schools has grown substantially, the CHE and the subcommittee have zealously guarded the composition of the membership body, which represents the universities much more than other academic institutions. Volansky describes the great anxiety produced by the reform bill proposed in 2000 by Limor Livnat, then an MK and today minister of education. Livnat argued that the composition of the CHE created a monopoly that kept higher education from expanding and aid from being funneled into other institutions.
The CHE was unhappy with MK Livnat’s proposal, and when she was appointed minister of education in 2001, it only fanned the flames. In the end, the government approved the makeup of the 10th CHE in keeping with Livnat’s directives. Volansky sums up the affair as follows: “The charges that the CHE operates as a monopoly and represents only the interests of the universities … are not borne out by the facts. In 1991/92 and 2001/02, the 8th and 9th councils added 30 academic colleges to the list. The average growth rate of the universities in the course of this decade was 3.6 percent, compared with 19.2 percent for the colleges, and all this was a consequence of decisions reached by the CHE and the subcommittee.”
Volansky is trying to add credence to the work of the CHE with these figures, but the real story they tell is one of weaker populations being excluded from the universities. The universities have kept a watchful eye on their growth and budgets. The expansion of higher education has been mainly through the opening of new colleges – not universities – to which large numbers of potential students have been referred. As the number of high-school graduates with matriculation certificates rose dramatically in the 1980s, the psychometric exam became a standard requirement for university admission. When this “blocking” method proved ineffective, the CHE created a separate academic track, known as the “college track.” Colleges were a convenient solution, because founding a new university would bite into the budgetary pie of the existing institutions.
Fewer Arabs, Mizrahim
In this way, higher education has turned into a commodity available to a select few. Experts Adrian Raftery and Michael Hout, for example, argue that expanding higher education may increase the participation of all social groups, but in practice, class-based inequality remains. In other words, the process of expansion is, de facto, a process of exclusion. A report published by the Adva Center social justice organization confirms these conclusions. The figures show that universities reject a large percentage of Arab and Mizrahi (Jews of Middle Eastern descent) applicants. For example, 60.5 percent of B.A. applicants from Baka al-Garbiyeh were turned down, along with 56.4 percent of all applicants from Arara and 50 percent from Tamra.
Prospects are also gloomy for applicants from development towns: 26.2 percent of all university applicants from Dimona were turned down, as were 20.8 percent from Beit Shemesh, 18.9 percent from Kiryat Malachi, and so on. These figures mount up to substantial gaps. The percentage of Jews studying at universities comes to 24.5 percent of all high-school graduates, as opposed to 10.6 percent in the Arab sector. Additionally, the percentage of students of European-American background (accounting for 32.6 percent of the student population in general) is double that of students of Asian-African background (16.5 percent of the student population in general).
Local colleges, in contrast to the universities, receive very little money from the CHE subcommittee, which is dominated, as we have said, by university representatives. In consequence, the colleges focus mainly on teaching rather than research, the academic level of the faculty is lower than that of the universities, and services like libraries and research laboratories lose out on budgets. If one considers that the majority of the students accepted by the colleges are from the periphery, it is easy to see that the “college track” perpetuates ethnic-national inequality while preserving the selective elitism of the universities (the common perception of colleges as inferior is proof of this). The situation has only worsened as branches of foreign colleges have opened in Israel, trivializing the whole concept of “higher education.”
Since the 1990s, legislative attempts to intervene in the tightly locked-up arena of academia have greatly multiplied. MK Mohammed Barakeh proposed founding a university in Nazareth and the Triangle; MK Sofia Landver proposed establishing one in Ashdod; MK Silvan Shalom pushed for admission requirements to be abolished for the first year of university study; MK Yair Peretz suggested that at least 10 percent of students accepted to undergraduate programs come from towns on the periphery; MK Yossi Sarid proposed abolishing the psychometric exam; MK Zevulun Orlev asked that academic degrees be awarded for Torah study. And the list goes on.
Volansky regards these proposals by Knesset members as intrusive and meddling. In some cases, he says, these parliamentarians are lobbying on behalf of the special interest groups they represent in the Knesset. Acceding to their demands, argues Volansky, will result in the “cheapening of higher education.” Whereas some of the proposals seem to have worrying overtones of privatization or nationalization – inasmuch as they seek to increase the state’s authority to determine higher education policy – the criticism inherent in them goes beyond petty self-interest.
Unanswered questions
A bit of comparison (which is absent from the book) shows that many countries in the West manage to produce a solid cadre of intellectuals without making it so hard for students to get their foot in the door. In Sweden, for example, there are no matriculation exams. Admission to a university depends on one’s final grades in school, which can be improved by retaking certain tests. In Holland, places in prestigious faculties are won by lottery. In Germany, higher education is free. Is it any wonder that the number of Israelis who choose to study overseas has risen by 35 percent?
Nevertheless, Israeli universities backtracked on their decision to employ the composite grade-point average (mitzraf, in Hebrew) method, which would have done away with the psychometric exam as the sole criteria for university acceptance. Although this exam (which costs the student thousands of shekels to prepare for) has been shown to be culturally and gender-biased – males average 40 points higher, residents of large cities do better, and those who have grown up in a Western culture are 16 percent more likely to succeed – the grade-point method was abolished less than a year after it had been adopted, before its practical implications could be studied.
Despite all this, Volansky refuses to recognize the legislators’ criticism of the academic world. As far as he is concerned, the universities are doing everything they can to reach out to the margins of Israeli society. He writes: “The Besha’ar association, to which 700 university lecturers belong, is doing volunteer work in development towns and underprivileged neighborhoods … The Weizmann Institute established Perach, a tutoring program in operation since the 1970s … The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Haifa have expanded their pre-academic preparatory programs and social-action projects.”
The unflattering statistics that form the basis of these law proposals never make it into the book. The percentage of students of North African origin at Israeli universities is much lower than that in the North African Jewish community in France. Similar findings have emerged for Palestinians in Israel compared with those living abroad. But Volansky is not concerned with comparative research. Neither does he bother with such questions as “who is an Israeli student?” and “who is an Israeli researcher?” The composition of these populations is not perceived as relevant to an analysis of the achievements of higher education. The book does mention the establishment of pre-academic preparatory programs as a gesture to “soldiers of Mizrahi origin” who have completed their military service. But beyond this philanthropic nod, there is no attempt to present a clear, open picture of the social structure of higher education in Israel.
Other disturbing policy issues, such as the ban on politics on university campuses and the silencing of radical student organizations, are also missing from the discussion. The university as depicted by Volansky is not a place for doubt or a breeding ground for social change. On the contrary: The book cultivates a sterile image of academia and touts that as a good thing. Criticism or outside interference, the author insists, could lead to an exodus of the intellectual forces this country so badly needs.
Reflecting on the revolutionary role that Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci envisions for intellectuals, this book is embarrassing. Volansky’s text brings to mind Allan Bloom’s controversial book “The Closing of the American Mind” – a lament on the decline of America’s universities in the wake of the student uprisings on campuses in the 1960s. For Volansky, as for Bloom, intellectuals are the guardians of hegemony and the university itself is nothing more than a technocratic organization that devotes all its energy to safeguarding its own standing.
What has become of the Israeli university since the days of Brith Shalom, a movement founded by a group of Hebrew University intellectuals to promote Jewish-Arab bi-nationalism? Who are the successors of Yesh, a socialist group that sprang up at the University of Haifa, or Campus, a radical organization at Tel Aviv University? How is it that the university has become the executive arm of state goals? Why are students identifying with “the system” and allowing the learning process to be turned into an instrument of utilitarianism? How did the university become both the goods and the guild? How has academic research become subservient to the needs of the army, industry and financiers?
No room has been found for these questions and many others in Volansky’s lengthy discussion of the standing of the CHE and its subcommittee for planning and budgeting. Judging by this book, the ivory tower of Israeli academia has never been so tightly bolted.
Dalya Markovich is a Ph.D. student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s school of education.