The first day of school is always an exciting event, full of hopes for a better future. This is true for the first day of kindergartens and schools, and was also true on Sunday, the opening day of the academic year. Still, the Council for Higher Education data published in Haaretz on Sunday dampens the festive mood. The gaps between Jews and Arabs are evident in every stage of higher education, the result of endless years of educational inequality. The differences between the two communities in the universities are simply the continuation of the gaps appearing already in schools, as expressed in the results of fifth- and eighth-grade school efficiency exams revealed last week.

According to the Council for Higher Education data, 57 percent of Arab students are eligible to take the matriculation exams, but only 28 percent actually pass the exams and only 22 percent achieve the minimum grades to enable them to be accepted to academic institutions. Among Jews in Israel, the percentage is 75 percent, 51 percent and 44 percent, respectively. Arab students constitute 11 percent of all B.A. students, but only 3 percent of PhD students. Only 2 percent of the country's academic lecturers are Arabs.

These numbers are an indictment against the state that proudly announced 64 years ago that it would "promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants," but has since forced a fifth of its population to live in the margins of cultural and economical life.

Beyond the apparent damage to equality, this sad reality reflects economic shortsightedness. Higher levels of education, and a wider range of subjects (instead of concentrating on pharmacy, nursing and education ) would do a world of good to Arab citizens and the Israeli economy, which could use new growth engines.

The hardships of Arab students have been well known for years. One can only hope that the fate of the new program approved by the Council for Higher Education's Planning and Budgeting Committee will be different from previous plans and declarations. The committee's sincerity will again be examined in a few years. At the same time, the Education Ministry must declare war on the gaps in the schools, and hopefully prevent some of the damage the Planning and Budgeting Committee is trying to repair.