Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Outdated teaching methods and BA degrees no longer relevant to the job market

Salaries of 6,000 NIS a month: “BA degrees are irrelevant.”

 Outdated teaching methods and BA degrees are no longer relevant to the job market; these are just some of the problems of the higher education system. A committee of experts assembled by the Student Authority recommends completing BA degrees in two years and revoking psychometric exam.

Concerns are growing that the higher education system is failing thousands of undergraduate students by using outdated methods which are sending them into the labor market without sufficient training. 

"In too many places, a BA degree is no longer relevant," says the chairman of the Student Authority, Gilad Arditi. "Everything that students have been learning in three years can be done in less time, with the same effect. We have become a system which delivers lots of content – but without much added value.

“Curious people are the ones which motivate mankind, and if you turn off too many young Israelis, they stop asking why, and become less active and interested in what is happening around them. So they accept the systems they find along the way,” says Arditi. 

Against this background Student Authority initiated the establishment of a committee of experts to update the higher education system. The committee, which includes Mandel Foundation in Israel CEO Moshe Vigdor, former CEO of the Council for Higher Education (MALAG), called for the higher education system to take responsibility for its share in encouraging inequality in Israel. The Committees recommendation included that steps be taken to update their structure of their undergraduate studies, among other things, to reduce inequality. These recommendations were submitted to the MALAG, and are expected to rise for discussions on a new multi-year plan, to take place over the next five years.

That report states that "The Committee calls upon the higher education system to recognize its part in creating and preserving the existing reality of unequal opportunities in society. The higher education system in Israel must ask itself what role it plays in the widening and deepening of the economic and social disparities.

"To this end, the higher education system must recognize that as it is currently exists, it causes social inequality. It must accept some responsibility in order to stop the deepening of inequality of Israel, and take steps to strengthen the mechanisms for creating equal opportunities and diversity in the system, and enabling inclusive growth.”
Vigdor said, "You cannot have a system where students take time to study technical subjects, and earn a degree, only to find that once they secure employment, they only then really learn what to do.” 

Arditi adds: "The problem is that not only is the link between academia and employment. Everyone in the higher education system - lecturer, administrators and students – are in their comfort zone. There is a conspiracy of silence; no one is challenging the system that everyone is afraid of change. The status quo is maintained because there will always be students who want to learn. However, if the situation remains as it is today, there will be fewer and fewer people seeking out degrees, and it will start to lose its prestige. It’s already starting to happen.”

According Arditi, the higher education system has lowered the bar to recruit more students. "The absurd thing is that whoever finished high school and attends college is going backwards. The secondary education system has progressed faster than higher education system, and those who attend to college may find themselves learning the old-fashioned instead of how they were taught in high school. When we were children we were told in college we will stop memorizing the material and really learn, but this is not always the case.”

Members of the Committee recommend to develop a mechanism for students to complete a bachelor's degree in just two years (instead of the usual three years now), through continuous study without reducing the curricula.
The Committee further recommends integrating courses which focus on active learning, enabling undergraduate students to gain practical experience as part of the curriculum and for credits. In addition, it recommends that faculty develop experimental curriculums, which will be able to integrate different types of learning and evaluation methods.

Arditi said that the initiative to set up the committee stemmed from “the students, where there is the greatest interest. We see the importance of 10.5 billion shekels invested in the state and in how it’s spent. You cannot say - okay, we'll take the time here and get a degree and this is it - we have to push the system forward.”

Committee, which convened over five months, included among others by Prof. Shlomo Biderman, President of the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, Dr. Yifat Biton from the College of Management, Prof. Galit Yovel from the School Brain Sciences at Tel Aviv University, Prof. Uri Kirsch, who studies the policy of higher education and the World Na’aman Institute at the Technion, Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein, President of the Feuerstein Institute which supports and provides alternative testing to the Psychometric exam, and social activist Daphni Leef.

 “People say: 'We did what you told us, we went, we studied for an academic degree - and here we are earning 6,000 shekels a month. This is an issue to be investigated in depth. The academic system is a key tool for social policy, and to think about how to stop create the caste system of today" says Vigdor.

"Israel's current reality can do more than transfer knowledge, and help reduce inequality," he adds. "Academia could be one of the tools for achieving this goal. Universities in Israel have more responsibility to the periphery, minority and religious groups. Today, a BA is a tool for social mobility, thus contributing to those who made it. The question is what the relevance to society is."

The greatest recommendation of the Commission to reduce inequality is to develop a multi-year plan to improve access to higher education among periphery populations, and develop research which will provide an updated and accurate representation of the different sectors and their needs.

The Committee recommends an alternative to the psychometric exam, which many have argued is biased against applicants who cannot afford to attend a preparation course or are non-native Hebrew speakers. "Classifying exams can be tilted and easily influenced by the candidate or the arrival resources from the periphery. The higher education system needs a sorting mechanism which recognizes the growth potential in a candidate.”

In addition, the Committee recommends to establishing a system which will allow applicants to be accepted not only in higher education but also to study trends in science. According to the Commission, the colleges give preference to candidates from disadvantaged communities and outlying areas. In addition, it proposes to set up workshops to help students in areas with poor access to higher education assistance in enrolling in graduate courses. 

The report was severely critical of the old-fashioned method of teaching in colleges and universities today and wrote: "Knowledge is not merely expanding one's mind sufficiently. As of today, colleges continue to maintain the same teaching methods that took place almost from the beginning, in stark contrast to the drastic changes that have occurred in almost all areas of life,” the report stated.

"Adherence to traditional teaching methods increases the separation between the content, tools and skills learned during the degree and those required by the labor market, creating significant barrier to integration.

"Too many people lose their sparkle in their eyes after their first degree, because they are receiving a mediocre education,” said Arditi. "They understand that they are there because they need to obtain the degree in order to begin to play the game. To give them back the spark, we should stop seeking to please them and begin to lead. This academic leadership not only fundraising, but students need to chart a path.”

According Arditi, "There are more than 300,000 students in the higher education system, and it is clear that not everyone will be academics, that most of them turn to the labor market, yet and the goal is still to prepare all students for research. A lot of students still maintain the illusion that by attending university, they will have a job. But the truth is, there is little connection and students are experiencing frustration and disappointment. It is hard to get hired without experience, and that's why many students begin entering the field during their second year of study. The labor market is signaling that the world outside academia works differently.

"I always explain the higher education system should focus on research that is needed to change humanity, but you cannot say that in the end the most important is to teach them all statistics, to prepare them to be explored. You have to understand what skills the higher education system can give all fields of study to send people with workforce skill set fit for the 21st century. it is no less important,” says Arditi.

Vigdor explains, "The idea is to give students a tool for thinking, to improve their ability to read and write and reflected, to function properly in society. These tools are not given today." He said that one of the recommendations is engaged in deepening humanities and values in all disciplines. "Humanities provide more content and help develop the thinking," he says.

In addition, the committee members visited the higher education system which has not carried out a comprehensive study examining the impact of the contribution of volunteer project of their students and the community.

"This is absurd situation completely contradicts the spirit of the academia, which advocates research-based activities and knowledge and there is an urgent need for immediate amendment of the current situation," the report said. The report's authors suggest doing such a study to examine whether the current planning efficiency and contribute to the community, and develop measures more involvement of the academic community, such as the development of social enterprises tracks by students.

"Institutions of higher education treat students seriously, and it is of the utmost importance that professors connect with the students," said Vigdor. "But the Commission proposes to examine how it is possible to provide students with more powerful tools. It is a big challenge, but we need to create a new dynamic to do the same. We can reduce disparities and equip the students with the tools that will contribute to better themselves and society. In the end most people come to have knowledge and want to develop their skills - universities be more equipped to do so. "

Original article written in Hebrew: