Gil Zohar was surprised when he learned last Thursday that he had failed the exam to become a licensed tour guide in Israel. After investing two years and NIS 22,000 in a demanding course, he thought he was well prepared. He was even more surprised when he learned that three quarters of his classmates failed along with him.
"It's scandalous," said Zohar, a freelance author and journalist who moved to Israel from Canada with his wife in 2005. "In previous years the pass/fail ratio was reversed. The results are very unusual."
Tourism Ministry figures show a steep drop in the pass rates of the November written exam for tour guides. The reason for the drop is unclear. Students claim foul play, but don't know who the culprits are. Ministry officials accuse the schools of accepting too many students. The schools claim they are following ministry policies and preparing the students well.
To make sure his class was not the exception to the rule, Zohar asked around among other students who had taken the test in November. He found that other classes showed similar ratios.
Zohar, who studied in an English-language class at the Lander Institute Jerusalem Academic Center, discovered that 16 out of 21 of his classmates failed the same exam, and that 15 out of 20 people who took the Hebrew version failed too.
His survey didn't end there. When he went through the list of another Jerusalem-based course, he found that they too had a similar failure rate, with 38 out of 54 people failing the test.
Further questioning by The Jerusalem Post revealed similar results among courses taught at other institutions, including the Israel School of Tourism, which operates in five campuses under the auspices of Haifa University.
Zohar said that many of the students were outraged at what they perceive as a hidden quota.
"They speculate [that] the passing grade was raised from 65 to 85 or 90 in order to restrict the number of new licensed tour guides and protect the jobs of those already licensed," said Zohar.
The fact that the school has refused to give the students their marks and only notified them of whether or not they passed only makes matters worse.
While Zohar admits that the course and the exam aren't easy, he thinks the rate of failure is unreasonable.
"I think the Tour Guides Union and the Tourism Ministry are in cahoots to prevent people from taking up jobs. It's a matter of the veteran Israelis not wanting competition from newcomers," said Zohar.
R, a classmate of Zohar's who asked to remain anonymous, said she didn't buy into the conspiracy theory, but felt that the ministry had definitely raised the bar.
"I don't think the exam was more difficult than previous years, I just think that they raised the pass grade to higher than it was," she said. "I got top marks in the mock exams that we did and it felt like the questions were pretty much on the same level."
"The course is difficult, there's no question about it," said Gavriel Malka, the director of the Israel School of Tourism. "It's long and complicated and it has many elements. People have to invest more than 520 hours in class and 80 days in the field."
Malka said that he and his team generally aimed for an 80% pass rate.
When he learned of the current results, he confirmed they were lower than usual and said he would speak to the Tourism Ministry to try and understand the reason.
Joel Mayer, a recent graduate of the Society for the Protection of Nature's tour guides course, said he was also surprised by the high failure rates Zohar reported.
"The test is challenging, but if you know your stuff you should pass. If you're prepared, you should do well," he said.
Mayer explained that the final exam was made up of a written test, and if students passed, they could then go before a panel and take an oral exam.
"The numbers are surprising. I think only five people out of nearly 40 students failed the written part in my class," said Mayer. "The criticism I know of for the written exam is that it focuses too much on taking the test and not enough on actually doing well at the job."
He said he couldn't speculate on why the Tourism Ministry would want to reduce the number of licensed guides.
When asked what the job market for tour guides was like, Mayer said it was tough, but that with determination and planning, most qualified people should be able to find work in the sector.
Mina Ganem, head of the professional training department of the Tourism Ministry, confirmed that the November test scores were lower than usual. She said that 52% of applicants passed, compared to 90% for those who took the same test in the summer.
Ganem said that there was no difference in the difficulty level between the most recent test and previous ones, and also denied the use of quotas. The difference, she said, was that as opposed to previous years, this year the ministry had not been involved in the initial acceptance of the students into the courses and had less control over their quality.
"The institutions that teach the course operate out of financial imperatives. It is in their interest to accept as many people as possible, and they in fact accept anyone who meets the basic requirements of age, language, education and lack of criminal record," said Ganem. "Whereas in previous years we might have weeded out those who were less suitable, this year we were not part of the acceptance process and had no control over the number of students."
Ganem stressed that the Tourism Ministry had very high expectations of licensed tour guides.
"These people function as Israel's ambassadors to foreign visitors. They are the first people the tourists meet when they come off the plane and they are with them until the moment they leave. It is extremely important that they are qualified and can answer any question posed to them," said Ganem.
Ganem said that the suggestion that the Tourism Ministry was intentionally failing students to protect jobs was completely unfounded.
"On the contrary," said Ganem. "Tour operators are constantly on our backs saying we don't license enough people to meet their needs."
Ganem said that as an industry, tourism professionals were well aware of the fluctuating nature of the business, especially in Israel, but that currently there was a large demand for tour guides, and especially those who speak foreign languages.
"The numbers don't sit well with us. We hate to see people discouraged by failing, especially after paying so much money for the course," said Ganem. "The courses have grown and will continue to grow; unfortunately that growth means that there will be those who get into the programs that might not be suitable. It is up to the instructors to tell the students that they may not do well and even discourage them from taking the course, but they won't do that because they are afraid of losing tuition."
Yaakov Berger is unconvinced. He too was a member of the failing class from Jerusalem, and said the instructors hadn't allowed those not prepared to take the written exam.
"Twelve people who took the course with us didn't even take the test. Our coordinator told them that they were unprepared and suggested they try to take the exam next year," said Berger.
He also contradicted Ganem's explanation for why more people were being accepted into the programs than in previous years.
"I personally was interviewed by members of the tourism ministry, and as far as I know, everyone in our course was, too," he said, adding, "I have two university degrees and I never failed a course."
"I don't think this exam was more difficult than a university course. There has to be a different explanation."
Tzvika Stanislavski, the director of the Lander Institute's Tourism School, said he and his team of instructors did everything they could to prepare Zohar and his classmates for the exam.
"The Ministry of Tourism has toughened its requirements, and it announced it would do so several months ago. The requirements will be put into effect starting from the next course, and we will do everything we need to do to upgrade our program to meet the ministry's demands."