Foreign Students Not Deterred by Israel's Security Situation

Drop in overseas registration at Israeli universities has been 'minimal.’

Ofer Vaknin

This summer’s conflict with Hamas has hardly dented overseas student registration in Israeli institutes of higher education for the upcoming school year. With Israeli universities increasingly focused on attracting international students, it appears that foreign applicants are prepared to brave the security situation and very few have cancelled.

University administrators report that the latest cycle of violence has affected overseas student enrollment just marginally – but warn that this could change if the fighting continues. Most of the cancellations registered, they say, have been in semester and year-abroad programs, whereas enrollment in full-degree programs – the flagship of their globalization efforts – has to date been largely unaffected.

This summer, like every other summer, Tel Aviv University ran compulsory Hebrew-language classes, known as ulpan, for participants in its study abroad programs. About one-third of the 300 students enrolled in this language immersion program, which began in late July, withdrew because of the war.

“Had we started our ulpan program later, like other universities, there would probably have been far fewer cancellations,” said Maureen Meyer, director of international programs at Tel Aviv University. “But I have to say that we were pleasantly surprised because compared with previous rounds of fighting, the rate of cancellation this time was much lower than in the past. It’s quite impressive that two-thirds of them actually showed up even though we were in the middle of a war.”

Some of those foreign students who cancelled, she said, planned to join the rest of the students when the school year begins in October and were just opting out of the Hebrew-language program.

Like most other Israeli universities, Tel Aviv has launched numerous English-language full-degree programs in recent years – both undergraduate and graduate – that cater specifically to foreign students and serve as a cash cow. These programs, Meyer said, have experienced only “a very small number” of cancellations.

On July 21, the United States State Department issued a travel advisory, recommending that American citizens “consider the deferral of non-essential travel to Israel” because of ongoing rocket attacks from Gaza. In wake of the advisory, the University of Massachusetts Amherst last week became the first American institute of higher education to cancel its study abroad programs in Israel over the upcoming academic year.

With a bit of improvisation, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev was able to avoid a significant wave of cancellations, according to Andrea Meiseles, the director of international academic affairs at the Be’er Sheva institute. “Our summer ulpan usually starts in August, and it’s a mandatory part of the study abroad programs,” she said. “Early on, we decided to delay it by two weeks, and we also waived mandatory participation this year. Some students did decide to take advantage of that and hopefully, when the school year starts on September 14, things will be calmer.”

Still, she noted, the situation is fluid. “This week is critical,” said Meiseles. “A lot depends on what happens with the cease-fire.”

Because of its relative proximity to Gaza, Ben-Gurion University has been busier than most Israeli institutions of higher education reassuring prospective students, their parents and university administrators that it is equipped to handle any situation that might arise. To date, said Meiseles, it has succeeded. “We haven’t had any schools yet that have pulled the plug, though my sense is that this is the week when decisions will be made.”

The months of September through November are typically when Israeli universities recruit study abroad students for their programs the following semester and year. The impact of the recent fighting, she said, might be felt more then. “We already had one university tell us we shouldn’t bother showing up for their recruitment fair,” she said.

Meanwhile, a group of several dozen students admitted to Ben-Gurion’s international medical school program, about half of them non-Jews, arrived in Israel this week. The university reported that none of the new incoming class members had dropped out because of the security situation, but in the event that rocket fire resumed in the south, it said, the students would be moved to facilities in safer parts of the country, as had been the case in the past.

Hanan Alexander, dean of students and head of the international school at the University of Haifa, said enrollment at his institution has hardly been affected by the war. “I assume if we were in the line of fire, though, this situation would be different,” he said.

The University of Haifa is the designated campus in Israel for the huge California State University system, with its 24 satellites and 400,000 students. “They normally start their program here in August with ulpan classes, but what we’ve decided to do this year because of the situation is move the ulpan to February and have them come in October instead.”

Alexander said he’s not concerned about the State Department advisory. “Most of the universities in the U.S. have learned by now that you have to see what’s happening on the ground before making decisions,” he said. The University of Haifa, he added, plans to launch four new English-language graduate programs this coming school year. “I’ve heard of one or two students withdrawing from our graduate programs, but that could have happened for a variety of reasons,” he said. “Right now, I’m not seeing any fall-off though.”

At the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, foreign students’ registration not only hasn’t fallen – it’s 10 percent higher than last year. “Hamas needs to do something more extreme to dissuade our kids,” said Jonathan Davis, head of the IDC’s Raphael Recanati International School, which is expecting a total of 550 students in the 2014-15 academic year. “We’re seeing increases in registration from France, Belgium and Italy – countries suffering from anti-Semitism – as well as the U.S. and Canada,” he said.

At the Haifa Technion as well, overseas student registration is up for the coming year. A university spokesman said that although there had been some withdrawals from its English-language engineering degree program, which targets foreign students, registration this year was still higher than last year.