Is Anyone Surprised that Only 11% of Israeli Undergraduate Students are Arab?

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As the academic year started at Israeli universities, Haaretz reported that Israel's Arab population is extremely under-represented in all levels of Israeli higher education, from undergraduate studies to employment as university faculty. In this op-ed, Dr. Nabil Khattab, head of IDI's Arab-Jewish Relations project, shares his thoughts on these findings.

On October 21, 2012, Haaretz published an exposé by Talila Nesher that reported that only 11% of undergraduate students in Israel are Arab. The article was based on an internal document that was prepared, according to Haaretz, by the Israeli Council for Higher Education during the last two years. The article reported that the study found that Israel's Arab population is extremely under-represented in all levels of Israeli higher education—starting with acceptance to undergraduate studies and ending with the employment of university faculty.

In order to reduce these gaps, the newspaper reported, the Council for Higher Education approved a new program that will cost over 300 million NIS. This program, which will be implemented gradually over the next four years, is designed to provide assistance to universities that will enable them to provide a greater level of support to Arab students.
The level of under-representation is, undoubtedly, shocking, and highlights a severe problem that must be resolved not just for the sake of the Arab population, but also for the sake of Israeli society as a whole. There is, therefore, good reason to be thankful for the Council for Higher Education's program, and to hope that it will succeed in attaining its goals. But at the same time, no matter how great its contribution may be, the program is not a solution to the problem.

The gaps in higher education in Israel reflect a variety of factors and processes that affect Arab students and even impact their chances for the future when they are of pre-school age or even younger. Some of these factors are internal, and are related to how parents and communities mediate the cultural influences, perceptions, and attitudes toward employment opportunities (or lack of opportunities). Others are related to external processes that are influenced primarily by the relationship between the minority and majority in the Jewish, public sphere.
In this short article, I will attempt to address two issues: One is related to the role of the Arab teacher and his or her informal influence; the second is related to the ways in which specific parents cope with the failures of the Arab educational system.

One of the important distinctions between an Arab teacher and a Jewish teacher (if you can excuse the gross generalization) is the degree of choice that is involved in their choice of profession. Jewish teachers often choose to become teachers out of a sense of mission and a desire to contribute to society. Arab teachers, in contrast, often end up  working in education for lack of choice and due to a desire to avoid unemployment. A second distinction, no less important (but also a generalization), is the level of mobility that is open to teachers in the two sectors. The Jewish teacher has the option of moving into a different position—outside of the educational system. In contrast, once the Arab teacher enters the educational system, he or she wishes to remain there until retiring, without any connection to their contribution or degree of burnout.

As a result, the Arab educational system has teachers who are there against their will, for lack of other employment possibilities. This does not help many of them to develop a high level of motivation, a sense of mission, or intensify their desire to contribute to society and to raise generations of individuals who are successful socially and economically. Many  teachers feel embittered and frustrated, which consequently gives students a negative message regarding the profession of teaching, in particular, and of education, in general.

It is not surprising that many students say to themselves: "Why should I bother studying? At best, I will be a teacher or I will simply hang my diploma on the wall." Clearly, this type of attitude is not representative of all students, which is good. Many students complete high school, pass their high school matriculation exams, and attend university, although in lower numbers than their Jewish peers. For those who do succeed, it is despite the many obstacles along the way. In general, they succeed because of the encouragement and support of their parents, who do not merely ask their children to study, but actively tend to their educational needs by providing assistance with homework, hiring private tutors for necessary subjects, and investing in creating a supportive learning environment at home.

There is no doubt that most parents want their children to succeed, but only a small percentage of them translate their desire into their children's success. The following story is about a family that made education its highest priority. The mother is a primary school teacher and has an undergraduate degree in Arabic language and literature. The father is a maintenance worker at a hotel, despite being a college graduate. They have three sons and one daughter. The oldest son recently began his sophomore year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the second son recently began his freshman year at Hebrew University, their third son is in 11th grade, and their daughter is in 9th grade. The mother, who is well aware of the limitations of the schools in the area where they live, understood that in order for the children to succeed in their studies, she would have to transform their home into a second school that would be active in the afternoon and evening hours. Even during vacations, she would sit with her children, review the material that they learned in class, and sometimes even teach them material that they had not yet studied.

When the two oldest children were in 11th and 12th grade, their parents hired private tutors for math and English on a regular basis. During the period before the matriculation exams, the parents increased the amount of help that their children received. In addition, the children took two preparatory courses for the Psychometric exam [the Israeli college entrance exam], which—according to the Council for Higher Education report cited in Haaretz—poses difficulties for Arab students,  as evidenced by a consistent gap of about 100 points in favor of the Jewish students. The third child in the family, who is currently in 11th grade, also has a private tutor for math and English, and intends to go to university. Judging by her good grades, the only daughter in the family is likely to follow suit.

The price that this family paid, and continues to pay, is very high. Many families, especially those that have only one employed parent—which is the case for most Arab families—cannot bear such an expense. In this particular family, despite the fact that both parents are working, a large percentage of their monthly income is devoted to their children's education, at the expense of other expenditures such as a new car, trips abroad, or going out to eat. These parents are also participating in the cost of university tuition for their two older children.

Other Arab families who can afford such a luxury choose to bypass the Israeli higher education system completely. They avoid the psychometric exams, which, according to many, discriminate against Arab students. Similarly, they sidestep the difficulties involved in being accepted to Israeli universities in fields that are in high demand, such as medicine and pharmacy, by sending their children to the East, enrolling them in Jordanian universities, which are especially expensive in terms of cost of living and tuition. According to data of the Council of Higher Education, there are currently 5,000 Palestinian students from Israel studying in Jordan. Some researchers see this phenomenon as the "Jordanization" of higher education among Israeli Arabs.

There is no doubt that adding this number of students to the total of Arab students in Israeli universities raises the degree of representation of Arabs in the fields of medicine and pharmacy, which is already relatively high. However, this does not help us understand why there is such a big drop in the percentage of Arab students studying for their M.A. or PhD. or why the percentage drops even farther when it comes to the number of Arabs employed as university faculty.  According to the Education Council's study, the percentage of Arab academics serving as faculty members at universities today is just 2%. It seems that the answer to this last question is in the hands of the gatekeepers within the universities, who have the power to determine who enters and whose entry is not desirable. But their actions, of course, are motivated by "purely objective" considerations. 

Dr. Nabil Khattab is head of IDI's Arab-Jewish Relations project and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.