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Rosenblatt: Stopping Israel’s brain drain

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Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the New York Jewish Week, tackles what he sees as Israel’s biggest problem: “Israel’s greatest worry,” he writes in his latest column, “is not over its military, diplomatic or political strength, but its serious loss of brainpower, which effects every aspect of society.”

During an interview here this week, accompanied by Mark Medin, the newly appointed, New York-based executive vice president of the American Friends of Bar-Ilan University, the soft-spoken professor warned that if what he called the academic “brain drain” taking place over the last few years in Israel continues, the results will be “a catastrophe” for a country reliant on developments in science, technology and other fields to bolster the economy and maintain a qualitative edge in the Mideast.

As chairman of the Council of Israeli University Presidents, Kaveh played a key role as point person between professors and the government during the country’s longest education-related strike that ended several weeks ago after more than three months, losing most of the semester. But he said the underlying problem remains because the issue “is not just about the budget, it’s about an attitude,” and that’s what disturbs him so much.

The Schochat Committee, an independent, blue-ribbon panel of academics and economists, was created last year to press for reforms in higher education that would address the growing problem.

The context for the crisis, according to [Bar-Ilan Univeristy President Moshe] Kaveh and his fellow university presidents, was that with tuitions so low — only $1,800 a year — Israeli universities have relied heavily on the government, which provides about two-thirds of their funding. But over the last seven years, that funding has been reduced by 25 percent. One of the many negative results has been that the universities had to cut some 800 teaching positions during that time.

According to Kaveh, some 4,500 Israeli professors — almost half of the country’s total — now teach overseas, most of them in America, where they not only find posts but make about four or five times as much in salary as they would in Israel. … To reverse the disturbing trend in higher education, the Schochat Committee is calling for giving back the government budget cuts to universities; providing professors with a 25 percent increase in salary; adding 100 Israeli academic posts a year; and releasing students (who usually start college after completing three years of army service) from paying tuition until after they have completed their studies, giving them 10 to 15 years to pay back their loans.

The catch? The plan would require a 100 percent increase in tuition, to about $3,600 a year – a move sure to be unpopular and draw student protests shortly before elections. So, Rosenblatt concludes, interested observers should keep their eyes on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, to see if he “makes good on his promise of government approval of the Schochat Committee recommendations in the next two months.”

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