Israel's Math and Science Education: A State of Emergency

At the end of last year, Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett urged Israel to invest more in math and science education.

Bennett’s call is in response to the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) results, which shows that Israeli students dropped nine places in math, from the 7th place to 16th place in 2015. Similarly, Israel dropped six places in science, from the 13th place to the 19th place. Israel also had the biggest gap of all participating countries between the percentage of students who are excelled in mathematics and sciences and those who have difficulties. 13% of students excelled in mathematics in 2015, a rise from 12% in 2011, while 16% of students struggled with math in 2015, compared to 13% in 2011. In science, 12% excelled, up from 11% in 2011, while 16% struggled, compared to 12% four years prior. The TIMSS is conducted every four years and assesses the mathematics and science knowledge of students across the world.

Commenting on the results of the study, Bennett wrote on his official Facebook page: “Remember how everybody attacked me over my obsession with mathematics? Now you see why. When it comes to the study of math, we are facing a state of emergency. (…) For the future of our country and (to educate our) potential future Nobel Prize winners, we will continue to push our students to study math at the highest levels even in the face of criticism."

Critics such as Einat Wilf, the former head of the Knesset’s Education Committee, were quick to point out that Israel’s performance on a global level is still relatively strong and that the test is not a true reflection of the students’ actual level of knowledge.

But Bennett’s concern is not unfounded. Years of budget cuts have severely damaged the quality of math and science education in Israel and cause more damage to Israel’s scientific endeavors and reputation as a ‘start-up nation’ than any BDS boycott can ever hope to achieve. The teacher-student ratio at most of Israel’s major research institutions has more than doubled (from 12.6 students per professor to 26.1). [1] Furthermore, Israeli universities are no longer able to compete for the most qualified professors. The emigration rate of Israeli academics is among the highest of Western countries, with over 21,000 Israeli teachers and researchers working overseas. [2]
As a result of the declining quality of Israeli higher education, an increasing number of students study aboard, particularly in the US. For many students, however, the cost of studying at a US university is prohibitive. Israeli students do not qualify for American Student Aid and many banks are unwilling to lend internationally because they cannot price foreign risk or cannot track borrowers outside Israel. Hence the students who can afford to study abroad are already part of the economic elite, which further exacerbates the already growing disparity between rich and poor in Israel.

In response to this issue, RHIF has set up its Illui Student Scholarships and Loans project. Our Illui Student Loans provides students with a viable option to finance their studies, in the form of American-style student loans that are collectively funded by a community of alumni, institutional investors, and qualified private investors.

These loans represent a mutually beneficial proposition: individual and institutional investors earn social returns by funding the Israeli leaders of tomorrow and competitive financial returns represented by the difference in the interest earned on the loan versus the official interest rate (Treasury Rates or AAA Notes), while students gain access to higher education that would otherwise have been well beyond their reach. In addition to our loans, we also offer scholarships to Israeli prodigies that have been accepted by top universities abroad. To date, RHIF has funded the US postgraduate degrees of seven Israeli students and there are 50 more students on our waiting list due to a lack of funding. 

Of course, sending students abroad is only a short-term solution as Israel tackles its education system but it would be unfair to deny today’s generation of students the quality of education they deserve. Those who are interested in contributing to a scholarship for an Israeli student can make a donation here.

[1] Taub Center, 2013