‘Unparalleled brain drain’ as Israeli universities deteriorate

Despite becoming wealthier, nation is not investing in higher education, not hiring enough staff, losing top minds to the US, says Taub Center study

Israeli students on the first day of the new academic year, 2012. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israeli students on the first day of the new academic year, 2012. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel’s universities are continuing to deteriorate and are not investing in reversing that trend, according to a study released by an Israeli research institute, just a week before the start of the new academic year. The study highlights an “unparalleled academic brain drain” to the United States.

“Over the past four decades, a much wealthier Israel with much greater budgetary capacity than in the 1950s and 1960s has steadily neglected its world-class academic institutions – and it has been increasingly jeopardizing its future that is so dependent on Israel remaining at the cutting edge,” Prof. Dan Ben-David, executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, said in a statement.

“It is not too late to change direction, but that means that Israel needs to rethink its national priorities and return them to the path of its first decades – the path that eventually enabled the country to become the ‘start-up nation’ that Israel needs to remain if it is to survive in its very hostile neighborhood.”

The study, which is part of the Taub Center’s forthcoming “State of the Nation Report 2013,” is an update of Ben-David’s previous research on the subject in 2008.

Some key statistics indicating the decline of the universities include a drop in senior faculty positions at top universities, an increase in the ratio of students to professors, and the number of Israeli professors working in the US rather than in Israel.

The actual situation is actually more damning than the numbers show, according to Ben-David.

“The situation is considerably worse than reflected in these numbers when it comes to the issue of relaying state-of-the-art findings to the next generation of researchers – who are today’s graduate students,” he said.

In perhaps the most disturbing trend revealed in the study, Israeli universities seem to be choosing to save money by outsourcing rather than investing in quality, long-term educators. In 1986, 13 percent of the senior research faculty was made up of external teachers, but by 2010 that number had risen to 46%, according to the study.

“This low cost solution to the public’s declining interest in funding research universities has had two important negative ramifications,” Ben-David said. “The first is the declining quality of instruction that students are receiving from individuals not actively engaged in cutting-edge research. The second is that many of these individuals may have intended to proceed along the research route, but the increasing lack of tenure and tenure-track positions in Israel’s research universities – relative to available graduates – has caused many to either drop out of the research path or to find research positions abroad.”

The study showed that since 1977, Israel’s population increased by 133%, its student population at research universities by 157% and its overall higher education population by 428%. However, the number of senior faculty had only risen by 9% in research universities and only 40% in all colleges and universities. The ratio of students to senior faculty more than doubled from 13:1 to 26:1 between 1977 and 2010.

At the nation’s top universities, the numbers painted an even bleaker picture. Hebrew University experienced a 17% drop in faculty positions from 1973 to 2010, and Tel Aviv and the Technion (Haifa) have 26% fewer positions.

One cause for these drops is the migration of Israeli academics to the US, according to the study.

“Israel’s academic brain drain to the United States is unparalleled, with 29 Israeli scholars in the US for every 100 remaining at home in 2008 (the most recent data available), an increase from the 25 per 100 in the US just four years earlier,” the study states. “This is several orders of magnitude more than the 1.1 Japanese or the 3.4 French scholars for each 100 remaining in their respective home countries.”

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