Higher education down south

BGU's new Eilat campus seeks to offer education while injecting tourism mecca with a dose of high energy.

bgu eilat 88 (photo credit: )
bgu eilat 88
(photo credit: )
Since its earliest days, Eilat, Israel's sunniest city, has been famous as a paradise for tourists. But now that the new extension campus of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) is up and running, Eilat is also about to become a thriving academic center. At least one person is working overtime to make that dream a reality. Dr. Shaul Krakover, since last October the Dean of BGU's newest facility, has been burning midnight oil in more ways than one. Twice a week, Krakover makes the three-hour trip from his home in the Beersheba satellite town Meitar to Eilat, where he works three days on-site, returning in-between to his main campus office in the Negev capital. The road trips aren't especially difficult, Krakover says. It was living in hotels that made it tough. "That's over now," he smiles. "I went to the administration and said, 'I'm not going to divorce my wife. I really need an apartment.' Just this week, I picked up the keys to a flat they rented for me. That'll make a huge difference." It also marked the beginning of a trend. Beginning in October 2007, several BGU professors will be living full-time in Eilat. "BGU-Eilat will offer tenure-track positions for professors," Krakover says. "To qualify, the professors must live in Eilat, not commute. Our goal is to establish an institution that will benefit not just the students or the university, but also the city of Eilat. If we're going to improve the whole region economically, culturally and socially, we have to have our people living there." Located on the southeast side of Eilat, the new university is about a ten-minute walk from the Red Sea. It replaces an older, failed institution. "About 20 years ago, a group of entrepreneurs founded an institution called Eilat College," Krakover explains. "For a variety of reasons, it didn't thrive. So five years ago, the Council of Higher Education approached BGU and asked if we'd take it over as an extension. We agreed on a five-year trial period that would run until October 2007, to see if we could make it work. But thanks to my predecessors, it's been so successful that BGU started investing in the campus a year early. We've been growing at an annual rate of 30 percent, which makes us the fastest growing educational institution in Israel. Ultimately, our goal is to serve 3,000 students." Last academic year, the Eilat student body grew from 370 to 490 students. "This year, another 200 students completed their matriculation, so next year we'll have 700. The following year we'll need a thousand students, to keep the momentum. We'll be opening new programs all along," the dean forecasts. The potential for growth is enhanced by the institution's status as a BGU extension, Krakover says. "We're the first 'brand name' academic institution in the city, and that helps. But primarily, we intend the growth to come from our offering solid education in an area already popular as a recreational paradise." For now, most of the students hail from the center of the country. "For obvious reasons, Eilat is enormously attractive to young people," Krakover points out. "Many have vacationed here and have good memories. Just look at the beach - who wouldn't want to study here? Another local advantage is the opportunity for part-time employment in the tourism industry. Even now, we have hotels and other tourist businesses coming to the campus, trying to hire college students. It's perfect for students because most of these jobs can fit around their class schedules." Eilat's remoteness offers another less obvious advantage - for students, if not for parents. "Believe it or not, some students want to put a little distance between themselves and their parents," Krakover says with a laugh. "If they live in Tel Aviv and study at the Beersheba campus, then parents say, 'But you're only 90 minutes away by train! Why don't we see you more often?' But if they're in Eilat? That's five hours away - it's not so easy!" One of Krakover's priorities is to promote the campus among students who come from much further away - from overseas. "While overseas programs are popular in all Israeli universities, our Eilat campus has a distinct advantage," Krakover says, noting that overseas programs usually invite foreign students for short-term specialized study for a month, a semester or a year. "Eilat has a very international flavor and is already popular with tourists from Europe, the Scandinavian countries, Japan and the US, so attracting students will come naturally." Archeology is one of the subjects most amenable for a condensed overseas program. "The whole Eilat region is rich in archeological findings. The opportunity to come for a period of combined study and excursions should be very attractive to students around the world," notes Krakover. "Geology, Marine Biology and our Hotel and Tourism departments are other options that will naturally appeal to students from abroad. After that, my next objective is to work with Eilat's closest neighbors, Jordan and Egypt, to see if we can create study opportunities for students from all three countries - to address regional issues, with access to sites in all three countries. That's a long-term goal." It took finesse to decide which fields of study would be made available on the Eilat campus. "We couldn't cannibalize our main campus," Krakover says. "We didn't want to open departments in Eilat that would split the student body in Beersheba and end up giving us two weak departments. So Eilat will start with only those departments where we have an overflow on the Beersheba campus, where we're already turning students away for lack of room. Right now the Eilat campus offers Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, Behavioral Science, Management - both Bachelors and Masters studies - and Hotel and Tourism. Those departments are up and running. Next year, we'll add Social Work, Economics and Accounting. The addition of Social Work is especially important - today, even among academically qualified students, a lack of space dictates that only one student out of five will actually be admitted to classes - there's simply no room. But now with the new campus, students can choose to study in Eilat, if they want. Not all will accept, but some will. This means that more students will study what they want to study, rather than what the university has space for." Red Sea access is another plus for BGU. "The problem for BGU's main campus is that Beersheba has no ocean, so Marine Biology has been a part of the Life Science Department. Now, with the Eilat extension, Marine Biology students will come to Eilat for their third year, to complete their projects." Earlier this week, an NIS 1.5 million new marine sciences lab was opened on the Eilat campus. The lab - together with the two large marine educational and research centers already operating in Eilat - will offer students a world-class educational opportunity. Krakover pays special tribute to the Mayor of Eilat, Meir Yitzhak Halevy. "He's a creative guy who's been working non-stop to develop the full potential of Eilat. He understood that a city of 50,000 can't thrive on only one industry, but needs a broader economic base. Before, Eilat was trying to run on just tourism, but when Halevy came to office, he began aggressively courting educational and academic institutions. He realizes all the benefits academic institutions will bring to his city." Eilat's demographics demonstrate the need for more local educational opportunities. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, about 17% of Israelis aged 22 to 28 are enrolled in higher education. In Beersheba, about 20% are enrolled. But Eilat is very low, with only about 8%. There might be several reasons for that discrepancy, but one factor may be that local young people want to stay in Eilat. "They don't want to leave, even though opportunities for higher education are lacking," Krakover points out. "So when BGU was considering how we could best serve the residents of Eilat, it was obvious that one way we could help would be to offer people over 30 - who missed the train the first time around - another chance at a college education. We designed a special program to help these students prepare for academic study. If they pass this course, they'll be ready to be accepted into a regular academic program." Nurses have also benefited. "In years past, nurses attended a nurse's college and didn't receive an academic degree," notes Krakover. "Now regulations have changed and a degree is required, which meant that many nurses needed to upgrade their education. We've created a one-year program in Eilat that does just that." For all students, one of the biggest advantages is that they will be able to attend BGU's Eilat campus for three years without paying tuition, so long as they agree to perform community service. "The tuition-free opportunity is possible because of the generosity of a group of donors," Krakover says. "Student tuition will be paid to BGU through a joint fund created by the Sacta-Rashi Foundation, the Jewish Federation of Toronto, the Eilat Fund and the 'Perach' student-schoolchild mentoring program. Obviously the students benefit, but so does the local community since the students will be performing community service." For Krakover, the appointment as dean of the Eilat campus was the perfect career opportunity. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1947, he came to Israel with his parents in 1949, and the family settled in Ashkelon. "For high school, my father sent me to Bnei Brak," he recalls. "I was one of the earliest graduates of BGU, and then went to work as a teacher's assistant in 1972." Today, the Krakover family includes four sons, three of whom are married, while the youngest is serving in the IDF. Krakover was a father of BGU's Department of Geography and Environmental Development, having served as department chairman and director of its urban studies program. Building a new university campus is the ultimate in urban development, he notes. "Geography isn't just streets and mountains - it's also about creating something, then watching it grow and develop." With the new campus, everyone wins. "It gives students the chance to pursue a solid education in an incredibly beautiful area. The city gets all the benefits of the high energy that the students and institution bring. For BGU, it's a great chance to expand its outreach and services." "In Israel, it's always popular to note that something is 'the first time in 2,000 years,'" says Krakover. "But in Eilat, we say, 'it's the first time ever.' For me, this is an incredible opportunity."