Higher Education Plan for Israel's Arab Citizens Lacks Teeth

Article Summary
The Israeli government's plan to make higher education more accessible to Israeli Arabs is ambitious, but implementation may be lacking, reports Chen Pundak.

The Planning and Budgeting Committee will invest 300 million shekel [$80.5 billion] in a program to enhance accessibility of higher education to the Arab sector. But among the numerous sections — including the establishment of guidance units, translation of sites and affirmative action in the recruitment of lecturers — there is no requirement to fulfill these goals or a real ability to supervise the process.

The Arab population constitutes about 20.5% of Israel’s residents, but the percentage of Arab students in all degree-bearing programs is only about 9.8%. The Planning and Budgeting Committee (PBC) of the Council for Higher Education wants to change this statistic; thus, as part of the multi-year program for higher education, a cumulative sum of about 300 million shekel will be invested in programs for enhancing accessibility of minority populations — Arabs, Druze and Circassian sectors, not including Bedouins — to the higher education system.

Dr. Avital Stein, Director-General of the Council for Higher Education (CHE), explained that, “for the first time, a comprehensive program has been consolidated that addresses all the barriers faced by Arab students, and that relates to the gamut of barriers involved in integrating the higher education system. Expanding the participation of students from the Arab sector in the ranks of higher education will help not only them, but in the long range, the state of Israel and the entire population will benefit.”

However, despite the PBC’s detailed program — which includes no less than 14 different action plans in a detailed document — the vast majority are not binding on the relevant academic bodies that can do as they see fit. Moreover, in most cases the PBC does not even have the option of supervising the program’s main principles and its execution. Thus, despite the most welcome attempt, the detailed program and the great deal of money involved — all changes are mainly dependent on the goodwill of the heads of the institutions of higher education, to implement said changes.

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Among the action plans recommended by the PBC is the “soft landing” distance learning program of the Open University, allowing students to transfer afterwards from the Open University to the research universities. Some programs are just recommendations that do not bind other entities, such as the “warm recommendation” to the Transport Ministry to increase the number of public transportation lines from the Arab villages to the study institutions. The PBC also recommends that the study institutions grant preference to Arabs in the allocation of dormitories, but does not require them to do this.

Furthermore, there is a recommendation to the institutions to help Arab-sector students find apartments in the vicinity of the university, since Arab students often encounter problems when they try to rent apartments. The institutions are asked to take direct action in organizing housing near the campus area. But here, too, it is not at all clear how the institutions are supposed to accomplish this.

At the hub of the PBC program is the establishment of units for advancement of Arab-sector students to be headed by a high-level faculty member, preferably a minority member. The Unit will be in charge of the absorption program of the Arab students in their first year. It is supposed to organize the following workshops for Arab students: workshops for study proficiency and qualifications, for psychological support and for academic counseling.

The full absorption “basket” consists of 4,666 NIS [$1,250] per student, when the overall allocation for each institution is dependent on the number of Arab students in Year 1, the socio-economic level of the villages of the students, and the percentage of minority-group students who continue on to Year 2 in the institution.While the allocation will be granted each year in advance, it will be based on the data from the previous year, which will have to be provided by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS). Furthermore, the students’ study tracks will also be taken into consideration in order to incentivize increased participation in those subjects that have traditionally low percentages of Arab students, and in professions with high post-graduate employment levels. However, the PBC does not cite how the subject-preference will be determined, something that the PBC had wisely done regarding the ultra-Orthodox sector.

Only partial translation of the university sites

One of the major barriers faced by the Arab society is the cultural gap: Although Arab society places importance on academic studies, Arab students in higher education encounter, for the first time, their minority status. This because for most of them, this is their first transition to Western culture, to an environment in which the Hebrew language reigns supreme: in lectures, information searches, signs, internet sites, secretarial services, registration of students, etc. Beyond that, psychometric data show that Arabs have a harder time acquiring English than do Jews. This is not surprising when we take into consideration the fact that Arabs study 4 languages in school: spoken Arabic, literary Arabic, Hebrew and English.

Therefore, the “Step Before Everyone” program was crafted to improve the first, initial contact with academia. The unique preparatory program will take place about two months before the studies commence, and all minority students will have the right to participate in the program if they are accepted to undergraduate studies. As part of the program, the following subjects will be reinforced: the Hebrew language, general study proficiency, academic orientation, and familiarity with the campus.

In addition, the websites of the institutions and of the CHE will be translated into Arabic to facilitate better orientation and academic knowledge. In order to incentivize the universities to do so [to translate], each institution will receive 10,000 NIS {$2.685] for translation and for appointing someone to be in charge of the Unit for Integration of Minority Members. Translation of the Internet site to Arabic constitutes the minimum threshold required, so that the institution may be eligible for program allocations. It should be noted that the translation is only partial, mainly for sections of the website that are connected to acceptance and registration procedures. Beyond that, the PBC does not set a deadline for the translation process and does not require the institutions of higher study to join the program.

Among the program’s sections is another regulation for establishing centres for information, counselling and guidance to the Arab sector in enhancing accessibility to higher education in the periphery. The program will be coordinated with the Education Ministry, in order to make the information available to high school students. A pilot project is presently being investigated; the program would operate career counseling in schools, in cooperation with experts in the relevant fields and in coordination with the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor. Beyond this, starting from this year the mechinot [institutions offering pre-academic preparatory courses] will receive per-student funding of about 6,000 NIS [$1,611]. This funding is for a designated coordinator[for the Arab sector, linguistic reinforcement, tutorials, and funding for transportation and dormitories.

A separate academic institution for Arabs?

 Another major problem that the PBC addressed is the low number of Arabs among university academic staff and administrative staff: About 2% of academic staff members and 1.5% of administrative staff members budgeted by the PBC, are from the Arab sector. Among them, is only a negligible percentage of senior staff members.

The PBC recommends conducting affirmative action campaigns in order to integrate minority members in senior staff positions and among university functionaries. Also, that the person in charge of the Arab sector in each institution, serve as a permanent member in the institution’s nominations committee. In addition, the PBC recommends that each institution set a yearly goal for absorbing minority-member employees. Even here, the PBC leaves the decision in the hands of the study institutions and does not specify if it will oversee the implementation of this goal.

The PBC even adds in the report that it is considering whether to establish an Arab academic institution in order to reduce the number of Arab students who study abroad. However, it has not yet made a decision. Supporters of the concept for establishment of an Arab institution in Israel argue that it will enhance accessibility of higher education among Arab society, create pride (“standing tall”) among the Arab minority, and facilitate research, preservation and development of the Arab culture, language, and religion. In addition, such an institution can be a magnet for attracting the Arab population that today avoids higher education due to cultural and traditional restrictions. Opponents of the scheme argue that if the language of instruction will be Arabic, it will perpetuate the segregation of Arab society and limit integration in the Israeli society and labor force. In addition, there is concern that the institution may not have as good a reputation as the existing leading institutions.

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Found in: language, israeli-arabs, israel, education, academic study
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