ON MY MIND: Investing in Israeli Arab education

How Israeli-Arab students are changing the face of Israeli society.

A YOUTH walks past graffiti on a street in Nazareth. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A YOUTH walks past graffiti on a street in Nazareth.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Positive results are being reported for a major Israeli government investment in boosting the enrollment of Israeli Arab students in colleges and universities and their eventual graduation.
In 2017, 12,790 Arab students began their bachelor’s degree studies in Israel, comprising 17.3% of the total first year students. Seven years earlier, 5,978 Arab citizens, 9.6% of the total, embarked on their BA studies. If this trend continues, Arab students will form 18.5% of the freshman class by 2021, according to the Israel Council of Higher Education.
With increases also in graduate degree programs, the total numbers of Arab students enrolled in Israeli universities today is 47,000, or 15.2% of the total national student body, compared with 26,500, or 9.3% of the total, in 2010.
The proportion of Arab students graduating with bachelor’s degrees also rose, from 8% of all students in 2013 to 11% in 2016.
“Our program is a significant factor in the increases in Arab acceptance to higher education institutions and successfully earning their degrees,” says Aran Zinner, senior coordinator for society and community at the Israel Council for Higher Education.
The council has been coordinating the government-funded nationwide program to boost Arab access to higher education. The initial investment of NIS 300 million provided groundbreaking recognition that enhancing that access is vital for the country.
“The future of Israel depends on tackling the Arab issue,” Tel Aviv University Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, chairman of the council’s Planning and Budget Committee, told me when the program officially launched in March 2013.
While the Arab minority today is about 21% of Israel’s population, it makes up 27% of the school-age population of pupils aged 5-18.
The council has focused on building awareness among high school students about higher education opportunities and the long-term value of obtaining at least a bachelor’s degree, and has worked with colleges and universities to help Arab students acclimate to campus and succeed.
“Enabling students to make smart decisions about their field of study is our main priority in our outreach to high school students,” says Zinner. Thirty-five percent of the Arab youths continuing on to higher education participated in the council’s preparatory program last year. First offered in 2015, it encourages choosing majors that may not traditionally have been considered.
“We are seeing the beginning of a shift from teaching and medicine to majors where Arabs have been underrepresented, such as engineering and hi-tech, as well as art and music,” says Zinner. “The goal is to boost Arab involvement in all fields of study.”
Another program, RAWAD, provides individual counseling for Arab students to help them choose fields of study.
It reached 50,000 students this year.
RAWAD also provides support to prepare for the required psychometric and Hebrew and English proficiency exams required for university applications.
To further encourage Arab high schoolers to pursue higher education, the council’s Planning and Budget Committee, together with the government, offers scholarships for qualified students.
“The Irteka scholarship program sends a message that we want the Arab students, care about them, and that the government is investing in them,” says Zinner.
“The two preparatory programs, together with the Irteka scholarship, are exposing Arab youngsters and their community to a range of educational opportunities, and encouraging them to choose, with an eye towards careers, preferred fields of study,” Zinner explained.
Importantly, most members of a steering committee overseeing implementation of the council’s program are Arab professors, including Haifa University Prof.r Mouna Maroun, who chairs the steering committee, Haifa University Prof. Faisal Azaiza, who was its first chair, and Weizmann Institute Prof. Edriss Titi, who heads the Irteka scholarship committee.
Since the council’s programs began, there has also been a significant increase in the matriculation rate in the Arab community. While in 2013 only 23% of Arabs scored well enough to meet minimum admission standards for universities, today 32% of them do – still well behind the 59% rate of Jewish pupils.
What Arab students accepted to Israeli colleges and universities can expect when they arrive on campus has been another major focus of the council.
In cooperation with 29 institutions of higher education that receive council funding, innovative programs and procedures are providing what Zinner calls “an envelope of support” for the Arab students pursuing bachelor’s degrees.
All these institutions have fulfilled the council’s requirement to establish an Arabic-language version of their websites.
At a time when some Knesset members have been pressing for the elimination of Arabic as one of the country’s official languages, expanding the use of Arabic on campus is significant.
One Step Ahead, an intensive program available for Arab students in the summer months before the start of their first year, had 774 Arab students in 2014 when the program began. Last year 1,366 participated, with 1,700 expected in the current year.
“Those who participate do much better academically, as they are able to adapt to the rigors of university and campus life,” says Zinner.
Another campus program, launched in 2013, is “Absorption into academia,” which provides a wide range of academic, cultural and social counseling, and support for Arab students.
Proof that these relatively new programs are easing students’ acclimation can be seen in the decline in dropouts between the first and second years of university, from 15% of Arab students in 2010, to today’s rate of 13%, which is closer to the Jewish dropout rate of 10%.
Of course, fewer dropouts also contributes to the rise in graduation rates and bachelor’s degrees.
Further confirmation that the access to higher education initiative has been successful came from the government, which has approved a second, six-year plan with a budget of close to one billion shekels. This builds on the programs of the first plan, which ended in 2016.
Overall, the government’s commitment to boosting access to higher education among Arab citizens is already beginning to produce qualified, motivated, and employable young men and women who will help transform the communities where they live and contribute to the country’s continuing development and productivity.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.