As the State of Israel begins to celebrate its Jubilee year, it can view its system of higher education with much pride. When the State was founded, there were two institutions of higher education. Today there are seven universities, and a series of regional colleges dots the map from the northern Galilee to Eilat on the Red Sea. Israeli scholars are among the world leaders in publishing their research and in being cited by other researchers. The higher education system is a growing component of Israeli society. As such, it must be especially attentive to the question of the direction of its development over the next fifty years.

It has been said that the educated person is the one who has learned how to learn...and change. What takes this statement beyond the dimension of a truism or even a cliche is the word “change.” The aphorism applies, moreover, not only to the products of a university education, the students, but also to the institutions themselves. In order not to become static repositories of information, the universities must examine themselves in the present context of global changes and developments. The most significant of these transformations is taking place, even as you read this column, is in the very field of information conveyance--so much so that we are already said to be living in the Information Era.

Both researchers and students are heavily bombarded by information electronically as well as on paper (Indeed, it has been far from the paperless society of the initial predictions.) How should amorphous masses of data be organized into bodies of knowledge? What tools should be used, or developed, so that students can hook themselves into the vast information networks and flows that are available to them? It is clear from such questions that the universities must adjust their work methods to the changing environment.

Another avenue of change that the universities must follow concerns the concept of relative advantage, both that which distinguishes one university from another and that which characterizes Israel’s seven research-oriented universities as a whole. In the Information Era, this concept takes on a different significance.

A clear advantage accrued at one time with a low student-teacher ratio, mostly to wealthy institutions. Today, good communications systems can turn this advantage on its head. Thus, interactive teaching can effectively simulate a one-to-one situation when the actual class may number in the hundreds. The “class,” moreover, may not even be sitting in front of the lecturer, but engaged in what has become known as distant learning. Similarly, researchers no longer have to be in the center of events to make a contribution to scholarly endeavors or to scientific solutions. Relative advantage, then, must be based on complementary factors to an institution’s location, the size of its library, or the political/religious orientation of its founders. Again, the determining complementary factors are the means by which the existing knowledge on which scientific research is based is organized and conveyed. The universities must answer the question whether they are equipping themselves with the communications systems and other tools to retain their competitive advantage.

What is happening globally, then, impacts on the university system in Israel. All the more salient in this regard are the changes that take place in the Israeli society and economy. Without doubt, Israeli society is polarized to perhaps a greater extent than ever before in its 50-year history. The polarization reflects political, religious, and class differences, a melting-pot society that is boiling over rather than gelling. It is important that the universities take a leading role in objectively assessing the critical issues that threaten to rend this society apart and in advancing the models and solutions for their amelioration.

The universities must also gear themselves to train the future personnel for the Israeli society. Economic developments in the world at large affect the economic development of Israel. The universities must carefully evaluate the directions of these economic developments and how they may impinge on the future needs, first, of their students and, then, of the society as a whole. As an example, Israel once made a name for itself through its advances in agriculture, a sector that was intimately associated with the kibbutz. Today the kibbutz is as likely to be engaged in sophisticated industry as it is in farming. In tomorrow’s world, the human resources are required elsewhere, not in the fields or the cow sheds, even on the kibbutz.

Although the changes in Israeli society must direct part of the mission of the universities, institutions of higher education cannot forget, fail to preserve, or distort their prime objective, which is the acquisition and diffusion of knowledge as the basis for a cultured society and as a means of helping society as whole and the individuals comprising it to understand and cope with inevitable change. –Yehuda Hayuth


Editor’s note: Professor Hayuth, President of the University of Haifa, serves as Chairman of the Committee of Heads of Israeli Universities.

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