Education is the key to preserving Israel’s strength and competitive edge, says the president of Tel Aviv University, Joseph Klafter.
“No doubt about it,” he declared. “Education is the basis of our economic stability and security.”
“For a country so lacking in natural resources, human capital is Israel’s primary and infinite resource,” said Klafter, who holds a PhD in chemistry from Tel Aviv University.
“Israel’s security depends on its ability to remain on the cutting edge of research in defence,” he noted in an interview last week.
Klafter, who was in Toronto to deliver a lecture at Holy Blossom Temple on higher education, said his university plays an integral role in defence research, a major component of Israel’s security.
“We’re involved in about 100 defence-oriented projects, many of which are supported by the Ministry of Defence and defence manufacturers,” said Klafter, 67, who has been president of Israel’s largest university since 2009. “The more sophisticated warfare becomes, the more you depend on research.”
“Wars in the future may be conducted from the corridors of research departments,” he added.
The university has been instrumental in fostering Israeli government and business ties with important Asian countries such as India and China, Klafter said.
For the past five years, the India-Israel Forum, a body dedicated to enhancing mutual business relations, has convened on the campus of the university.
“We’re an interface between Israeli and Indian businessmen,” he explained. “We’re a bridge.”
The university has also signed exchange agreements with several universities in China, and the city of Nanjing has agreed to send thousands of local business executives to take courses in innovation and entrepreneurship on its campus.
With the onset of globalization, Israeli universities have no alternative but to reach out to foreign students, Klafter observed.
At one time, universities in Israel largely cultivated relations with counterparts in North America and Europe. But in recent years, there has been a shift to Asia. “We have contacts with China, India, Japan, Singapore and South Korea,” he said.
Klafter, a native of Tel Aviv who was previously chair of the Israel Science Foundation, urged Canadians to study at his university.
“We want more Canadian students to join our English-speaking programs. We have 13 MA and MBA programs in English. Next year, we will offer a degree in electrical engineering in English.”
By his estimation, roughly 1,500 of its 30,000 students complete their degree in only English.
Klafter suggested his university is still recovering from draconian government cutbacks that forced it to trim faculty staff from 1,300 to 900 and adversely affected research activities and the teacher-student ratio.
Describing this austerity period as “the lost decade,” he said the government has begun to invest more in high education in the last two years.
Klafter expressed concern that academic standards in Israeli high schools have declined, at least as judged by scores in various tests in an array of disciplines.
He is also concerned that the number of Israeli students studying the hard sciences is decreasing. These developments can be ascribed to fundamental demographic changes in Israeli society, he said.
Simply put, there are fewer secular Israelis and more haredim today.
According to Klafter, the situation is not hopeless.
The Israeli government should ensure that haredi students take mandatory courses in English, the humanities and science.
Teaching programs can be improved, said Klafter, adding that the university is already working on this problem.
The university also encourages haredim to study at its satellite campus in Bnei Brak, a religious enclave in greater Tel Aviv. Currently, haredi women enrolled there are taking courses in nursing, communications and social studies.