Israel may have transformed itself over the past decade into one of the world's vibrant economies, but innovation training is nonetheless sorely lacking in the nation's universities, according to Dr Milly Perry, director of the research authority at the Open University of Israel and CEO of OPMOP Ltd Technology Transfer Company.
She was speaking on 14 September at the OECD's Institutional Management in Higher Education general conference in Paris, titled Higher Education in a World Changed Utterly: Doing more with less.
"Israel has become known for its entrepreneurial activity, but the 'start-up nation' culture has actually not encouraged innovation in higher education," Perry said. "Innovation is seen as something nice to have, rather than a necessity, across the higher education system."
The OECD, a think tank and occasional negotiating forum for leading industrialised nations, is putting innovation at the centre of economic policy and education reform recommendations to its member governments.
It is urging countries to encourage innovation through their higher education systems, as part of wider efforts to produce graduates with the training and skills needed for success in the knowledge-based economy.
Organisers made innovation a key theme of the IMHE conference. Discussions centred on how universities were faring in the post-economic crisis world, with delegates sharing experiences on the notion of 'doing more with less'.
Israel, which recently became the OECD's 33rd member, would appear on the surface to be a model follower of the innovation message, Perry said.
The country's universities have helped incubate dozens of high-tech, biotech and life sciences start-ups, now listed on New York's NASDAQ exchange. Venture capitalists shovel money into new Israeli firms. And its entrepreneurs have become the darlings of business school case studies worldwide.
In a bid to support the goose laying golden eggs, Israel's government announced in late August plans to boost higher education spending by 30% annually over the coming six years.
The annual budget is slated to jump from roughly 767 million Israel new shekel (about US$204 million) in 2011 to ILS2.3 billion (about US$612 million) by 2017.
And maybe surprisingly, given Israel's security needs, government officials have said much of the additional funding would come from reductions in the defence budget.
While Perry welcomed the increased higher education funding, she wondered if it was a question of "too little, too late" to foster a true innovation approach in higher education.
"Most people in Israel will tell you we have an excellent higher education system, which is fostering this 'start-up nation' mentality, but the truth is today's education system is the result of past investment," Perry said.
While the government's new six-year commitment showed that "there's maybe a light at the end of the tunnel, after 10 years of painful budget cuts we still have to do more to embed the value of innovation into higher education," Perry insisted.
Research presented during the OECD conference showed that Israeli universities have not been teaching students about the need for innovation in management, products, processes or services. While high-tech teaching is obviously a strong suit of many Israeli campuses, Perry argued, "technology is not a synonym for innovation".
Perry's chief concern was that military spending and defence firms, rather than university laboratories, have traditionally been the principal catalysts of innovation in the Israeli economy, and education officials have yet to get the OECD's message.
"We thought it would be obvious, and that everyone would consider it important to promote innovation in higher education," Perry said. "But our research shows that there is actually no consensus regarding the importance of innovation.
"Most people are actually confident that there's already enough innovation in the system."
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