Gideon Sa'ar.
Gideon Sa'ar. Photo by Nir Keidar
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High school students will soon be able to take university courses for credit, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar said on Thursday.

Speaking to the Council of Higher Education at a conference on the new initiative, Sa'ar said a pilot program would begin next year among about 1,000 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders. The students would take online classes with Open University instructors, allowing them to earn credits toward an undergraduate degree.

Grades in a still-undetermined number of courses in certain subjects will be considered an alternative to a matriculation exam in that subject.

Each course will cost students NIS 1,550 instead of the usual NIS 2,100 the Open University charges per course, but the Education Ministry pledged that scholarships would be available based on economic need and merit. The ministry has earmarked NIS 1.5 million next year for the scholarships, criteria for which have yet to be finalized.

Professor of education Yossi Yonah of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who is among the experts advising the social protest movement, said the program is another sign of privatization of the education system. The Education Ministry, Yonah said, "always speaks in two languages - it declares equality but acts with a lack of equality.

"In this case the ministry itself is delivering a mortal blow against equal opportunity in education. This is anther step in the transfer of responsibility for education to the parents," Yonah said.

With regard to the scholarships the Education Ministry said would be available, Yonah called the statement "consistent but not persuasive," and indicated that that the ministry was wrong to think that offering scholarships solved all the problems of offering privatized programs. Such scholarships were, "a fig leaf to cover up the damage to equality of opportunity," Yonah said.

Yonah said if officials wanted to overhaul the education system dramatic steps were needed, but of a type that would benefit all students.

However, Sa'ar says the program will strengthen public education by "opening the gates of academia to talented high school students, mainly from outlying geographic areas, and will help them achieve their potential while still in high school."

Students who obtain a grade in Open University courses in civics will be considered to have completed level-two matriculation in that subject. Students who obtain grades in courses in the Arab world and Islam, literature, computer science, psychology, political science, sociology, economics and geography will be considered to have passed their matriculation in these subjects at level 5, the highest level.

In mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, communications, theater, film and art, the matriculation grade will include the Open University course grade.

The Education Ministry says it intends to expand the program in the coming years to eventually include all matriculation subjects.

Under the plan, if a minimum of 15 students signs up for a course, an Open University instructor will be made available at the school, along with online guidance. Students who want to join the academic track will have to take preliminary courses in academic reading and writing. Participating high schools will appoint a coordinator to mediate between the university and the students.

The Education Ministry already operates a program of university courses in high schools, but only for gifted students and so far, students have not been allowed to use their university grade as a matriculation grade.