Only about 11 percent of college and university students are Arab, according to the Council on Higher Education (CHE).

Given that the Arab population in Israel now stands at more than 20%, that number is indicative of the barriers still holding Israeli Arabs back from gaining the education they seek, and therefore keeping thousands of citizens from integrating into the Israeli workforce.

Recognizing the gaps, the CHE is in midst of a five-year, NIS 300 million plan, begun last year, to make those numbers more reflective of society as a whole and to make higher education accessible to all minorities.

But with institutionalized discrimination present in higher education, critics say, the government will have to take more aggressive steps toward leveling the playing field, including allowing university- level courses in Arabic – and not just for those studying the language.

Starting this year, educational institutions will have to translate websites into Arabic and offer incoming students workshops for improving their Hebrew and other forms of academic support, all of which will be subsidized by the statecreated CHE.

Schools will also be required to come up with plans for recruiting more minority students and reducing the dropout rate. As part of the CHE’s overall plan, it will also begin opening information centers in Arab towns around the country. The centers will offer, among other things, guidance that is largely unavailable to the majority of Arab high school students.

Noa Binstein, who helped produce the latest report on the issue at the CHE, said the council’s program will help students “pursue a wider range of careers and will serve as a stepping stone for new opportunities for graduates.”

An extremely high proportion of Arab students, for example, apply only to study in medicine or related fields.

Having more Arabs attend universities will “open new horizons for them and therefore it’s something that is a positive in its own right, as well as how it will positively benefit Israeli society,” Binstein said.

She said that although there is an overall increase in the percentage of Arab students in higher education, that number has risen at the same time as an overall jump in the size of the general student population.

“We are continuing our efforts to increase the representation of Arabs in the student body, through programs to help students whose mother tongue is not Hebrew apply and get accepted to university,” Binstein says.

The problems, however, are multifaceted. Dr. Yousef Jabareen, the founder of Dirasat – The Arab Center for Law and Policy, a Nazareth-based organization, said that while the moves are encouraging, they do not go far and fast enough.

“Creating this plan by itself is a positive development and I’m glad that the council is giving attention to this issue.

However, I don’t think the plan is comprehensive enough,” said Jabareen. For example, he applauded the policy of having websites in Arabic, but said that more systematic discrimination happens in taking the psychometric exams needed for entrance to university.

“There’s a serious gap of about 100 points between Arabs and Jews, with Arabs always scoring less, so we argue that it is culturally biased against Arab students, and I didn’t see anything substantial in the latest recommendations for dealing with this,” Jabareen said.

“We have also suggested that first-year Arab students get enrichment classes on how to conduct and write research, allowing them to gain research skills in Arabic, and in general to add some university classes in Arabic, in their own language, so it would be easier for them to understand and connect with professors.”

Jabareen noted, citing the report, that only 2% of university professors in Israel are Arab.

Hampered by many of these disadvantages, he added, between 7,000 and 8,000 Israeli-Arab students are studying in Jordan, which is both more expensive for them, and is unlikely to help them gain unemployment upon their return to Israel. Other Arab students have been flocking to the West Bank, he added, primarily to the American University in Jenin.

Meanwhile, he noted, Dirasat has been recommended allowing the Nazareth Academic Institute, a new college, to be eligible for becoming a publicly funded institution.

“This is the only Arabic-language institution in the entire Arab sector. But of all the seven colleges in the north of Israel, it is the only one where students can earn a BA degree in Arabic – and the only one that gets no public funding,” Jabareen said.

“These are important recommendations. But they need a close follow-up in order to check that they are being implemented and are not just ideas on paper.”

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