Head to Head / Why Are So Few Arabs in Higher Education?

An interview with Haifa Professor Majid Al-Haj.

Only 2.7 percent of all Israeli university lecturers are Arabs, according to statistics presented to the Knesset's investigatory committee on the absorption of Arabs in government jobs. The percentage of all Arabs in the higher education administrative staff, at any level, is even lower: 1.7 percent.

Prof. Majid Al-Haj, the vice president of Haifa University, is the most senior Arab in the higher education system today. In 2001, he headed a council subcommittee that put together a report on the subject. The report's recommendations, all accepted by the council, determined that action had to be taken to increase the representation of Arabs in university preparatory programs, to establish information centers to lend support for higher education in the Arab sector of the population, and to make changes in the psychometric entrance exams.

al haj - Hagai Frid - June 28 2011
Hagai Frid

Prof. Al-Haj, where do you see an improvement or, alternatively, stagnation in connection to absorbing Arabs in academia - as students, faculty and administrative staff - in the decade since your 2001 report was submitted to the council?

"Over the last ten years there has been a significant rise in the number of Arab students in bachelor's degree programs at universities and colleges. What has not changed is the representation of Arabs in programs for more advanced degrees. The second area where progress has been made is with respect to the level of awareness and the desire of the Arab population for higher education, and the growth in the number of Arabs turning to it in Israel and abroad. When it comes to faculty, in 1995 - when we began intensive activity through the Maof fund to absorb honors Arab lecturers - there were only 15 in all of Israel's universities. The fund granted four to six scholarships per year to absorb Arab lecturers of proven excellence, and today we have reached 2.7 percent of faculty at the universities. There has certainly been a significant improvement, which should not be underestimated. We took on people at an honors level and beyond."

You see 2.7 percent as a significant improvement? In absolute numbers the increase in faculty is unimpressive.

"We are still far from 20 percent, commensurate with the percentage of Arabs in the Israeli population. But this is because it is still not easy to find honors students in various areas who meet the criteria of excellence.

"Arab schools still lag light years behind western school systems, and also in relation to the Jewish population, because the investment in Arab education by the Education Ministry and local authorities is minimal, and a qualitative change has yet to be felt in the field. What have made themselves felt are slogans, and so you will see that the results on various tests in the Arab sector are similar to those of Third World societies. The Education Ministry still fails to relate to these needs, not only with respect to success on matriculation exams but also to the quality of schools."

The average psychometric grade for those tested in Hebrew in 2009 was 564 points, while the average for those tested in Arabic was 456. Do you accept the argument that such gaps may be explained by differences in culture and language?

"The Arab pupil takes the exam in literary Arabic, which is in effect not his mother tongue but a second language. And so English is a fourth language. He doesn't receive any compensation for this. So there are a number of barriers for the Arab student: The exam is not suitable culturally, there is a difference between literary and spoken Arabic and, in addition, the Arab classroom - from nursery school on - is based on the 'banking' system. Information is deposited to be withdrawn during exams. It does not develop critical thinking, or creative or logical thinking. When the students reach university, they fill the humanities faculties. I am not making light of them, but their threshold for acceptance is lower."

What additional barriers are there at the universities themselves?

"Today the Arab student who reaches university spends the first two years coping with the basic problem of absorption in a university. Some universities have begun budget funds for tutors to accompany Arab students, and also in preparatory courses to take place before studies begin. This groundwork must be broadened. The universities and colleges do not take Arab students seriously.

"Another matter we treated in the committee is the subject of the cultural atmosphere at universities, which in effect alienate Arab students because they are not based on the concept of multiculturalism. An Arab student comes to the university and suddenly finds himself in a foreign cultural system because it is Hebrew, western, and in most cases he doesn't see how it touches on his own culture. For example, the universities have never seriously considered including Arab administrators in positions, so that Arab students might hear Arabic when they enter a particular office."

The report claimed that the more an Arab was educated, the smaller his chances to receive work in the Jewish sector. How much do barriers to the absorption of Arabs in the private market and the civil service influence the motivation for and investment in the higher education of young Arabs?

"The moment an Arab finishes his education, he has, in most cases, two certificates - an academic one and that of the unemployed. And in many cases this is because of his birth certificate. He is forced into a situation where he has to return to his hometown and compete with other educated Arabs for the existing jobs.

"The inclusion of Arab academics in the private market and government offices would contribute greatly to an increase in the desire of Arabs to continue their education and obtain more advanced degrees. It would contribute much more to the economy. Large amounts of resources are invested in academics, and the market is missing an opportunity to use these forces. There are also political ramifications. It is known that a frustrated elite in a minority is a recipe for extremism.

"In order to complete the circle, I must return to what the Arab population must do: It must invest in excellence and quality, which must become the Arab sector's ideology. I have always said that a minority must excel instead of crying. There is no alternative. The Diaspora Jews have encountered this situation throughout the world and broke through because of excellence."