Arab activists try to cancel age requirements at universities

Say rules delay Arabs from entering needed professions.

Tel Aviv University 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tel Aviv University 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Arab-Israeli activists are waging a campaign to revoke minimum age requirements at Israel's universities, which they say discriminate against their community and contribute to professional shortages in the Arab sector. Most universities require students to be at least 19 or 20 to enroll in departments such as social work, nursing, communication disorders, occupational therapy, physical therapy and medicine. While universities say the policy aims to ensure that students are at an appropriate maturity level, activists say it disproportionately affects Arabs, since the vast majority do not join the military at age 18. As a result, Arabs who select these programs have to delay their studies for one or two years after high school, prompting many to study abroad or pick other fields altogether, activists say. "We want them to cancel this requirement, since the population that is hurt in a collective way is the Arab student population, because they all apply to university at age 18 because they don't serve in the army" like most of their Jewish counterparts, said Durgham Saif, director of the Nazareth-based Karameh: Association for Human Rights and the attorney in a lawsuit on the issue. The lawsuit was filed in May 2007 against the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University, the University of Haifa and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology on behalf of Karameh and the Monitoring Committee on Arab Education. The next hearing is scheduled for February. University officials say the age requirements were set for fields that require treatment or interaction with patients, which demand a certain maturity. At the Hebrew University, for example, students must be 20 to enter occupational therapy and at least 19 to start social work or nursing, said spokesman Jerry Barach. "The reason is that students in these areas, beginning with the second year of studies, are already dealing with people on an individual basis in terms of counseling and care, and the feeling is that it requires a certain amount of maturity," Barach said. At Tel Aviv University, students must be 20 to enroll in social work, nursing, communication disorders, physiotherapy, occupational therapy or medicine. "They are majors that involve treatment of people... and they came to the conclusion that one needs personal maturity for the needs of these fields," said Edi Keren, director of the university's admissions office. The age requirement is often waived, however, for students in the Atuda'im program, who are allowed to delay their military service and study first. Saif argues that the exception made for these students - who are largely Jewish - proves that the policy is discriminatory toward Arabs. At Tel Aviv University, the age requirement is only waived for Atuda'im students enrolled in medicine, Keren said. The policy was not discriminatory since the university allowed anyone sent by the army - Jew or Arab - to participate, she said. Activists also say the policy contributes to shortages in the fields in which there are age requirements. For example, Israel had a shortage of 250 speech therapists who speak Arabic in 2007, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. And in 2001, the State Comptroller's Office said "there is a shortage of professionals in the [Arab] sector, particularly in nurses and speech therapists." In 2001, just 8 percent of all physical therapists, 4% of speech therapists and 3% of occupational therapists were Arabs. Most of the fields with age requirements "are culturally-oriented ones" that require Arabs, who speak the language and are familiar with the culture, to work in the Arab sector, said Yousef Jabareen, director of the Nazareth-based Dirasat: The Arab Center for Law and Policy, which is helping to raise awareness about the universities' policies. The shortages, which are aggravated by the age requirements at universities, meant "Arab children and Arab people who need these services don't get them," Jabareen said. "It hinders their ability to develop, manage and succeed within society."