For years I’ve struggled to understand how higher education funding works in Israel. As the chairman of the international Board of Trustees for Nazareth Academic Institute (NAI), which receives no government financial support, this analysis has been a high priority. Yet the recent decision by Ministers Steinitz and Sa’ar to throw their political and budgetary weight behind an upgrade of the Ariel University Center to a fully-fledged university only makes it more of a mystery. While there are plenty of important issues involved in the decision, the one I keep coming back to is this: How did Ariel become an educational funding priority? And, more importantly: Why aren’t we?

More than a decade ago, the Nazareth Academic Institute began the process of opening the first academic college in an Arab community. The institutional framework was negotiable; what mattered was creating access for Arab students. So in 2000 NAI applied for accreditation as a branch campus of Tel Aviv University, only to be told by the Council for Higher Education (CHE) that it was outside TAU’s approved geographic range.  NAI tried again with the University of Haifa in 2002, and was denied again on the basis of geographic priorities. In frustration, NAI asked what action the CHE might recommend. The response from then-head of the CHE was that NAI should try to create academic dynamics on the ground. He suggested starting as a branch campus of a foreign university.

NAI did exactly that, opening as the Mar Elias branch campus of the University of Indianapolis in 2003. Based in Ibillin, the campus not only created access for Arab students but pioneered a core general education based on peace and multicultural studies. Everything changed in 2006, when the CHE created new guidelines outlawing foreign branch campuses in Israel, but it agreed that NAI could apply to be accredited as an independent institution. In its accreditation application, NAI asked to be publicly-funded.

The CHE responded that its policy at the time would not allow the approval of a funded institution in the coming five years. Further, the CHE requested that NAI submit a statement asking to be accredited as a non-funded institution before the accreditation application would be addressed. NAI did so and received accreditation in 2009, opening in November 2010.

In August 2010 Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, along with the CHE’s Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, announced a special  500 million shekel budget line to improve higher education access for Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities. It seemed like (finally!) there was a concrete recognition that the lack of higher education opportunities for Israel’s Arab citizens was a problem, and NAI would be an ideal partner in solving it.

Whatever happened with the general funding status issue, we at least felt that there was a clear budget mechanism to support NAI with some public funding. In the almost two years since their announcement, the only academic college located in an Arab community –NAI – has seen none of those funds, nor any of the standard public funding awarded to the six other academic colleges in the region, all located in Jewish-majority areas.

It seems interesting, then, that in its 'self-report' to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) program on Institutional Management in Higher Education, issued in 2009, the CHE suggested there was a need for higher education in Nazareth, specifically. It laid out the region’s higher education landscape, heavily weighted toward Haifa, its largest city, with others scattered throughout the Galilee. “Notable for its absence is Nazareth,” the report said. “The largest city in the interior of the Galilee region has no accredited college or university.” Drafted before NAI’s move from its initial location in Ibillin, the report demonstrates the council’s recognition that the lack of an institution in Nazareth meant a major gap in higher education for the Galilee region.

The OECD’s response, its Report on Higher Education in Regional and City Development for the Galilee (released in 2011), declared that the continued disparities between Arab and Jewish community development represented “a threat to the long-term sustainable development of Israel.” Arabs represent some 20% of the university-aged population in Israel, the report noted, but only 11% of matriculation students. “Considering the current underrepresentation of Arab population in tertiary education, steps should be taken to support NAI, which is the first comprehensive Arab higher education institution in Israel,” the report said.

The OECD report was published last year, yet no discernible action has been taken in the nearly eight months since. And while the recommendations themselves are not legally binding, they are the recommendations of an OECD program in which Israel elected to participate.  Further, the report itself was not released until it received approval from the Minister of Education. Which makes me wonder: Why approve a report you have no plans to implement?

Keeping the institute’s doors open since 2010 has been a constant struggle of fundraising against what seemed like impossible odds. During the process of independent accreditation, the institute was at a standstill. Who wants to give money to a school that doesn’t have any students? And if having students never protected the branch campus status, what assurances can we give donors that NAI won’t also be shut down without warning? The only assurance I can see is the one we don’t have: a public funding investment.

The CHE answered NAI’s 2011 request for a change in funding status by citing another agreement it had made with the Ministry of Finance in August 2010, that it would “not authorize the opening of new funded institutions of higher education.” Recent events suggest that agreement is far from absolute. The finance minister has promised an additional university budget to support Ariel’s transition, suggesting that, in fact, new funded institutions are possible under the terms of the agreement. Likewise, legal scholar and former Minister of Education Amnon Rubinstein argued in a recent letter to Trajtenberg that the CHE need not be bound by an agreement with the Ministry of Finance when such an agreement violated its own mandate to provide equitable higher education funding.

And while it remains unclear which budget line Minister Steinitz will transfer to support Ariel’s upgrade, there has been a clear budget line to support NAI since 2010 – funding that has never made it to Nazareth. Why, I wonder, haven’t we seen it?

Susan Drinan is chairman of the international Board of Trustees for Nazareth Academic Institute, the only college in Israel jointly managed by Arabs and Jews and the only one to require a general education in peace and multicultural studies. Her views do not reflect those of the board or of NAI.