This post isn’t going to be funny. Zabaj readers used to a good laugh, don’t read on after the jump.
There’s lot of striking going on; there’s a lot of hullabaloo over the Israeli higher education system. Last year saw a semester get nearly erased from the school year, and this year professors unsurprisingly are now striking as well. What’s this all about? Well, I’m going to argue that this all goes back to the same thesis that seems to underlie any theory I’ve had on Israeli social behavior: short term thinking and an overwhelming sense of entitlement without responsibility are to blame for this.
Let’s start with the current strike: professors are being underfunded; there has been an “erosion in wages.” Let’s face it — it’s no surprise that employees of a publicly run education system are woefully underpaid. So much so, that with 4500 researchers currently in Israel, there are some 3000 living and working abroad and making salaries commensurate with their education and expertise (according to this Haaretz editorial. According to Prof. Nada Carmi, President of Ben-Gurion University as quoted on Reshet Bet 10/9/07, this ratio is actually more toward 4500 Israeli researchers at home and 4600 abroad). The fact that an especially brilliant and productive professor is in no way entitled to higher pay than the rest is perhaps a socialist ideal that (at best) is in place to keep academia honest. I personally wouldn’t give whoever penned that regulation so much credit, but even if that were so: socialist ideals get trumped by capitalistic reality over and over in Israel, and the fact that the erosion of wages should beget an erosion of Israeli academic talent should not be surprising. Let’s remind ourselves that Israelis are not frier-im.
They’re definitely not frier-im. If any of us needed a reminder of this, we certainly got it with the student strike of 2006. The students were mad as hell, and they weren’t going to take it anymore — the government promised (some years ago) that tuition would be cut, and now they were reneging. Students got those megaphones and made sure nobody would study at our major universities without getting an assful of what they had to say. Much of this was “university should be free of charge for everyone!” and this sentiment was echoed in personal encounters I had with some of our best and brightest that were in favor of the strike’s ideals. France and Australia have/had free education (the latter until 1988 as a reader points out), do they not? Why not us?! We give this country three years of our life, risking our life, serving in the army. We should not be their frier-im!
I see no problem with the ethics of this argument. I even think the argument has some logic: we see how it works in other countries; we give of ourselves for three years, why not give to us back for three years? Unfortunately, the ethics and logic of this argument ignore the facts of Israel’s financial and political reality, and more importantly, its place in the global capitalist world. More simply stated, my argument is this: “no fair!” is not good enough when the resources don’t exist to make things fair. Entitlement to something is only useful when that something exists. I’ll even go on to argue that a socialist education system can’t exist in Israel in the face of global capitalist competition, but for the moment let’s focus on the entitlement issue: why shouldn’t university tuition be free?
Simple answer: there’s no money for that. The more complicated answer would say that yes, maybe, there’s money for that in budget reallocation and fighting government corruption that is hoarding this and that, but what kind of university system would that sustain? We, as Israelis, as Jews, aren’t satisfied with being average; we want our best and brightest professors to ourselves and to maintain our position as a major technological cluster of the world, number three in the world after Silicon Valley, and Boston’s Route 128. This is not going to happen if our best academic talent is lured away to the US. So, how do we pay for this? Not by reducing tuition income to zero.
But France! Australia! Well, they don’t have 19% of their budget going to defense like we do. That’s reality, and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. (Sounds high? It’s a bit more than the US, which spent 17% of its total budget last year on defense not counting the war in Iraq). Comparisons are good, but it’s important to compare all the relevant indices before we start demanding our country give us what the neighbors have.
We also have a lot more riding on the quality of our academia than France and Australia do. Our chief export is not coal, gold, meat, wool, alumina, iron ore, wheat, machinery or transport equipment. It’s not vehicles, crude oil, aircraft, plastics, nor chemicals. It’s ideas. It’s innovation. It’s Comverse, Amdocs, Checkpoint, ICQ and Given Imaging. It’s Skype, M-Systems, and Intel Israel. It’s world leadership in defense and security technology. It’s being some of the most prolific inventors relative to population, year after year. Our GDP is so inextricably linked to our innovation that we really can’t screw the higher education thing up. But why is this any different than before? Why is this suddenly a crisis when our parents’ generation was able to make do with what Israel had to offer and create these Israeli superstar companies that created so much value for our country?
There are a few answers to this question. One is that the faculty of our parents’ generation, many of which stayed in Israel for ideological reasons (or otherwise seem to be more tied to living here than their zealous understudies) are now retiring. Another answer is that the Soviet immigration of the early 90s injected tens of thousands of brilliant and ambitious engineers and thinkers that kicked our economy into high gear for that period and allowed for the high tech success that put Israel on the map (together with the social and political progress during the Yitzhak Rabin period). But I think the third answer, first brought to my attention during a lecture by Yanke Margalit (CEO, Alladin Systems), is the most crucial and defining reason why Israel’s education system is in crisis: India and China are doing it better. No, not just cheaper, better. And if they’re not today, tomorrow they will be. Out of the tens and thousands of yearly PhD graduates in China, what do you think the chances are that there aren’t a handful of exceedingly brilliant and inventive among them that will give Israel’s innovative edge a run for its money?
And this air of global competition — I’ll call it capitalism to generalize — is precisely why we can’t expect our most important asset, education, to be socialized. We can’t expect it to be free. We have to value it, personally. It has to cost something: it has to make our professors want to stay here (hint: they do want to stay here, but would you take a 70% pay cut to do so?) It has to have the most advanced research facilities, classrooms, study rooms, and scholarships to bring the the best to the highest levels of academia and it has to innovate.
And that’s why it has to be expensive. I’m not suggesting it be so far out of reach as it is in the US. $120,000 for a BA is obscene. I’m suggesting it be three times what it is today. From $7,500 to $22,500. Take all that extra revenue and buy us some of our professors back. Buy us better facilities, re-open those closed departments. Build an experience at our universities that is going to make our alumni want to donate to keep it what it is. I’m not even sure that’s enough. The number is arbitrary; my point is the idea that we have to start really paying for what’s valuable to us to grow it.
But how on Earth can Israelis afford that? I’m American, and maybe you’ll be compelled to remind me that Israelis don’t make the kind of salaries that countries with higher tuition make. True, but two facts make this point insignificant. First, the Israeli workplace rewards higher education (see research done by Prof. Asher Tishler for more on this); those with only a high school diploma make less than half of what people with advanced degrees make. Unemployment declines as a function of years of schooling. The second fact is that even in countries where education is fully subsidized, they still make way more money than we do. The salary thing is a moot point.
Yet students still can’t afford what I’m suggesting. That’s true — what they have in their bank accounts surely doesn’t amount to a sum like that (for most). I’m reminded of a friend of a friend who told me last year that if tuition didn’t become free, she’d have to quit her last year of studies and give up. Too expensive. This seemed like a grave situation, so I suggested a solution: “why don’t you take out a small loan and finish your degree then?” Her answer was the most unsettling and foreboding anti-frier harbinger of the future of this country: “I don’t want to.”
Maybe most students aren’t as brazen about their lack of responsibility for their personal progress (and the collective progress and future of this country), but she made a very important point. Personal long-term debt is strikingly absent from Israeli culture (aside from the negative balance many Israelis carry in their bank accounts). The idea of getting a loan for school is all but unheard of. Loans in the tens of thousands of dollars for school are unheard of. They’re also prohibitively hard to get. I know this because I couldn’t get one for the last payment of my MBA, despite my annual income being several times the amount I was trying to finance. Turns out the banking system in this country has neither any reliable credit rating system nor the ability to collect debt from cosigners. I was told that “even if [I] had my employer cosign on a loan, [they] couldn’t ever collect on it should I default anyway.” This is not surprising given the fact that mortgages are a relatively new concept here compared to the rest of the world, and that you still have to come up with a sizable down payment to be eligible for anything reasonable.
I have faith that the local banking system can update its policies to meet the consumer need. I think the ideological “I don’t want to” of personal finance is a bigger hurdle. Israelis could have a small loan payment, they just don’t want to. They can save up to go travel around the world (a crucial rite of passage for most Israelis) but they can’t fork up a bit each month to cover what is possibly the single most valuable personal asset they carry with them for the rest of their lives?
We need to stop dreaming of a utopia where education is free. We need to abandon the nostalgia of our socialist Israeli roots and realize that we’ve become a capitalistic, and unabashedly self-serving population bent on never being the frier. That so, we can’t expect to have our goals fulfilled by the instant gratification of a guaranteed government subsidy by a government that can’t afford what we need to win. We live in a global marketplace of talent, and unless we continue to excel far beyond our peers around the world, Israel’s days as a first-world economic oasis in the middle east are numbered.