Thursday, December 04, 2008

Tuition Fees in Israel

A friend of mine, Lahav Harkov, writes a blog that is published on the Jerusalem Post website. In a recent post, she described the susceptibility of Israeli universities to strikes from professors demanding a higher wage. Lahav explained the professors' stance, explaining how "last year, senior professors did not teach until February, demanding a raise in their salaries and better working conditions." Lahav concluded that the best solution would be to raise tuition fees. The argument seems reasonable enough; bite the bullet, invest in your future and reap the rewards after university.

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, Israeli students haven't exactly warmed to this idea. As Lahav wrote, "the Ministry of Education and the Treasury formed the Shochat Committee, which was meant to find a cure for Israeli higher education's numerous ailments. When the Committee recommended that tuition be raised in 2007, the National Union of Israeli Students called a strike."

It would seem that we have a catch-22 situation, the professors strike demanding more money, and the students strike when it is recommended that they pay higher fees. Both sides are playing hardball, stubbornly refusing to yield or accept any concessions. As Lahav said, only three days before the university started "the universities were granted 515 million shekels in an emergency meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Finance Minister Ronny Bar-On and Education Minister Yuli Tamir." These funds have not yet arrived, and now more strikes are on the horizon.

Despite funds being formally pledged, the simple truth is that there simply isn't enough money to go around, and the government's hesitant stance on increasing university funding is understandable. I have heard stories over the last couple of years of old people in Israel freezing to death in their homes in the winter because their pensions don't cover their heating bills. I have heard how at least one elderly Holocaust survivor has returned to Germany because the money she receives there is far more than she is given far more than here. What money Israel does have cannot be used on all these causes. Something's got to give.

Of course there are some grants that are paid. Olim Chadashim receive what's called a "Sal Klitah," an "absorption basket" of assorted rights that help ease the transition and aid people settling into a new country. I will be making aliyah next year, and there is a very good chance that I will go to Bar Ilan University like Lahav, and have my tuition fees paid for by my Oleh Chadash government grant. In my case, this fund is a real boon and will be very welcome, given that I am nearing financial independence from my parents, and will soon have to account for every last penny. Seeing as I haven't yet got an income of my own, a government grant will make a world of a difference. I don't know Lahav's situation, but I'm certain that she similarly appreciates the opportunity of a free university education.

For as long as I can remember the Israeli government has offered, and continues to offer, Jews in the diaspora incentives to make Aliyah. Olim Chadashim receive a wide array of "zchuyot" - discounts, rebates, various tax reductions and notably for young people, free university schooling. A major reason why I decided to make Aliyah now (as opposed to after studying in England at a more prestigious university) was that I would have my degree paid for by my Aliyah rights. Over the three years that I will be studying here though, my basic living expenses will cause me to out-spend the money saved on the degree itself. It's a win-win situation for both the economy and for myself.

I agree that it is in the best interests of the government to entice people to immigrate, seeing that Jews outside of Israel are typically wealthier than their Israeli counterparts. I agree that it is a good idea to offer many of these discounts to Olim Chadashim so as to ease the transition to a new country, but I have serious misgivings about offering full university grants to every immigrant. Admittedly, many of the Olim to this country are poor people (If you're reading this Paul, I don't do P.C.) from Africa, Russia and South America, but the fact remains that the Olim most likely to attend university here are those who immigrate from North America and Europe. If we look at this particular demographic, we see that many of these Olim are middle-class and lived a fairly comfortable life abroad.

To make it clear, here is the crux of the issue; the middle-classes in Canada, England and America are considerably wealthier than those in Israel. I have a number of friends who came to Israel to learn in yeshiva or a midrashah, and have now made Aliyah and are studying in an Israeli university, or will do so in the near future. These same people would have most likely attended a respected university in America or England had they not moved. Imagine that they had gone to one of Cambridge, YU, UCL, or Harvard. As far as I understand, English university fees are about £3,000 a year and American fees can easily reach $40,000. These are not small sums of money, but as a matter of routine, young Jewish men and women attend these universities and make that hefty investment in their future.

I agree with Lahav that students should be prepared to invest more into their futures, as she says, "the benefit of receiving a quality higher education outweighs its cost by far." Having said that, Lahav was speaking from the point of view of an "Olah Chadashah," and as such has her fees paid by the government. Can Lahav and I truly expect to have our fees continued to be fully subsidised while the native Israelis' fees are raised? I stress again that I think it positive that Israel attempts to make Aliyah easier and appealing, but it's a rather wasteful of the government to distribute grants unnecessarily when there is a real shortage of funding for other, far more pressing and important, needs. I believe that the benefits offered to immigrants are a good policy because they ultimately benefit everyone, but there has to be a limit.

Now that these students have made the jump to Israel and attend one of the top Israeli universities such as the Hebrew University, The Technion in Haifa or Bar Ilan, are they suddenly impoverished and unable to pay their fees? Without doubt, there will be a significant number needing financial assistance, but what about the American students who would have otherwise stayed behind in America and attended Stern or Yeshiva University and would have had to pay fees many times the amount Israelis pay here? I cannot fathom the logic in granting them total subsidies. It makes no sense to offer full bursaries as standard and to raise the Israelis' fees at the same time.

I do agree with Lahav when she says that students in Israel must learn to accept that if they want to learn at a prestigious institution with good facilities and respected professors, they must be prepared to invest heavily. It's for their own good. I agree that the best solution is not to demand more of the government, there's no point in requesting more grants - we'll only get higher taxes by way of return.

But at the same time, while professors are striking in Israel year after year, maybe the best thing would be to cut back the funding to Olim Chadashim. I don't mean that no grants should be given to Olim, I am sure that for many people it makes the difference between going to university or to the job centre. Rather I propose a sliding-scale system, a need-based scheme to distribute Israeli money properly. The money saved should go some way to paying the professors' wages and help alleviate the hike in Israeli students' fees.


  1. I did disclose in my blog that I'm a new olah and that my fees are paid by the government. HOWEVER, if they weren't, I and my family would be more than willing to invest in my future. Israelis don't have a culture of saving money for later on in life, and because of this, the government has to overspend on welfare for retirees, higher education, etc. Maybe people should start saving for their children's future from the day the children are born, and then it will be easier to afford.

  2. Not attacking you Lahav!

    Ultimately, I agreed with your view that the fees need to be raised, but I also think the current Oleh Chadash rights set-up, being as uniform as they are, a tad wasteful.

    The concept of a college fund in Israel is a long way off, though. I would contend that that's mostly due to the significantly cheaper cost of attending university here, though.