Universities as Drivers of Econmic Prosperity – The Israeli Experience

I recently had the opportunity to visit Israel for the first time and to experience the very different culture, climate, geography and politics in the country. I was there speaking on behalf of The University of Nottingham at the invitation of the Green Campus network active in Israel to speak at their conference at Ben-Gurion University of the Nagev.

BeerSheba, a mystical sounding desert city that has developed massively in the past decade or so. My knowledge of this city was limited prior to the visit but what became clear to me very quickly was the strategic importance placed on it by Israel’s first leader, David Ben-Gurion.

“Only through a united effort by the State … by a people ready fora great voluntary effort, by a youth bold in spirit and inspired by creative heroism, by scientists liberated by the bonds of conventional thought and capable of probing deep into the special problems of this country … we can succeed in carrying out the great and fateful taskof developing the South and the Negev.”

Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion

Ben-Gurion University

As the largest city in the Negev desert of southern Israel it is often referred to as the “Capital of the Negev” and is the centre of the fourth most populous metropolitan area in Israel with a population of over 200,000 people. It’s around a 90 minute drive from Tel Aviv which, by Israeli standards; is some distance in a small country of less than 8 million living in around 40% of the land space.

Whilst development of Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem has come about because of their geography (port cities) and their religious and historical importance, Beersheba has needed more deliberate investment. The Blueprint Nagev project includes the Beersheba River Walk, a 900-acre (3.6 km2) riverfront district with green spaces, hiking trails, a 3,000-seat sports hall, a 15-acre boating lake filled with recycled waste water, promenades, restaurants, cafés, galleries, boat rentals, a 12,000-seat amphitheater, playgrounds, and a bridge along the route of the city’s Mekorot water pipes. The plans include building new homes overlooking the park and neighborhood. Four new shopping malls are planned. The first, Kanyon Beersheba, will be a 115,000-square meter ecologically planned mall with pools for collecting rainwater and lighting generated by solar panels on the roof. It will be situated next to an 8,000-meter park with bicycle paths. Another mall will be a farmer’s market, the first ever in Israel. It will be an enclosed, circular complex with 400 spaces for vendors, and it will be surrounded by parks and greenery.

In recent years, some $10.5 million has been invested in renovating Beersheba’s Old City, preserving historical buildings and upgrading infrastructure. The Turkish Quarter is also being redeveloped with newly cobbled streets, widened sidewalks, and the restoration of Turkish homes into areas for dining and shopping.

Today, the city is undergoing a major construction boom, which includes both development of urban design elements, such as water fountains and bridges, and environmental development such as playgrounds and parks.

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Ben-Gurion University Library – its first building

A considerable part of the city’s regeneration plan rests on the university named after Ben-Gurion himself. Ben-Gurion University of the Negev aspires to be among the best inter-disciplinary research universities in the world, a leader in scientific innovation, inter-disciplinary research and applied sciences – all of which impact daily life. It is committed to social and environmental responsibility and is working to develop the Negev, Israel and the world. As one of Israel’s leading research universities it has around 20,000 students and 4,000 faculty members in the Faculties of Engineering Sciences; Health Sciences; Natural Sciences; the Pinchas Sapir Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences; the Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management; the Joyce and Irving Goldman School of Medicine; the Kreitman School of Advanced Graduate Studies; and the Albert Katz International School for Desert Studies. More than 100,000 alumni play important roles in all areas of research and development, industry, health care, the economy, society, culture and education in Israel.

What struck me was the pace of development and the important regeneration benefits the university brought to otherwise deprived areas of the city. Whilst there was high-end development in the bio-tech disciplines, there was also massive infrastructure projects such as the relocation of the rail station to serve both the University and the forthcoming technology park on the other side of the rail line.

But the university isn’t all about buildings – it’s put people in its local community at heart – and is a University with a conscience, where high standards of research are integrated with community involvement. The Community Action Department bring BGU into the heart of disadvantaged neighborhoods while outreach programs make higher education accessible to all the residents of the region. I heard, for myself, about a great project where students of the university can live rent free in one of 70 university-owned properties across the city if they commit to give 8 hours a week of their time to community projects. These included dance classes, homework work support and community cooking. Alongside that, BGU is committed (like Technion University) to allowing its students to train guide dogs across campus and it’s not unusual to see them in lecture theatres, cafes or across the campus. Alongside this, more fundamentally, there are now over 500 Bedouin students – over half women – at BGU thanks to outreach and retention programs spearheaded by the Center for Bedouin Studies and Development.

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Satellite Image of Haifa

Leaving the desert and heading west along an increasingly green corridor towards the coast, via Tel Aviv, towards Haifa I came to the Technion University which sits amongst the northern reaches of the Carmel mountain. It’s an extensive campus with some impressive civil engineering and architecture to make a coherent and accessible campus across the terracing of the mountain. It’s certainly impressive and in any other city might be considered a real attraction but, then, it sits not far from the hugely impressive Baha’i Gardens overlooking the sea with immaculate, tended gardens with an army of devoted volunteers. On the slopes of Mount Carmel it’s certainly an impressive view towards the coast. Coach loads of tourists, from all over the world by the looks of it, gather to take in the art form of gardening to a new height.

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Haifa – The Port.

The Technion University vies for the status of Israel’s oldest/ first university with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Whilst these things matter to universities they are less important to guests and there is certainly much more to enjoy than age alone. The Technion University certainly knows how to greet its guests with a specially created visitor centre telling the history of the University, its notable academics (including Nobel Prize winners), and the University’s role in creating and building Israel.

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Guide Dog Homage

The Hebrew University, home to extensive correspondence from, and to, Albert Einstein, who was a frequent visitor, contributes to its city in a different way. Unlike Haifa and Beersheba, Jerusalem would still be its own city if its universities left. It’s not, in any way, a university town. But not because it’s universities are insignificant. Quite the opposite in fact – but what happens beyond the security fences and turnstiles feels a million miles from the hubbub and rush of the city. The HU has created a wonderful green lung in the city providing space for biodiversity, urban cooling, run-off suppression and spaces that people can enjoy. Its sheer mass of numbers, around 24,000 staff and students, create demand for services and pressure on infrastructure. It was great, then, to see investment in a light rail (tram) extension that will connect the city centre, its two main teaching campuses for science/engineering and humanities, and the Government Quarter.

Having visited all three universities in the space of just under 4 days, it would be easy to make assumptions, but I saw three universities who saw social, economic and environmental contributions to their local, regional and national communities as important and central to their mission. Whilst there are many questions still to be answered in Israel, there are some shining examples of good practice too.

 

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