After False Start, Plans Advance for State-funded College in Israeli Arab Town

The initiative comes as more and more of Israel’s Arab minority is pursuing a higher education and demand for skilled, educated workers with advanced degrees is growing rapidly.

A couple of students on the Tel Aviv University campus.
Ofer Vaknin

After a false start, the first campus in an Arab town of a state-supported institute of higher education is finally moving forward.

The Council for Higher Education’s Planning and Budgeting Committee is now considering five bids that were submitted by a May 31 deadline.

The winner will receive initial grants totaling millions of shekels, plus an annual budget of 20 million to 40 million shekels ($5.22 million to $10.44 million), depending on the size of the enrollment.

In addition, the Arab town that hosts the campus will get a significant economic boost, not just because of the institution’s state-subsidized budget, but because hundreds or perhaps thousands of students will patronize local businesses.

The initiative comes as more and more of Israel’s Arab minority is pursuing a higher education and demand for skilled, educated workers with advanced degrees is growing rapidly.

In January, CHE invited academic institutions to submit proposals to build a campus in an Arab town in the north “that will make general academic studies accessible to the Arab population in the north, particularly in areas with high employment potential, which will provide a vital platform for integration into the labor force and society.”

Bids were submitted by two universities – Haifa and Bar-Ilan – and three colleges in the Arab sector — Sakhnin Teachers’ College, Al-Qasemi Academic College of Education in Baka al-Gharbiya and the Arab Academic College of Education in Haifa.

The University of Haifa was supposed to open a branch in Nazareth two years ago, at the request of Manuel Trajtenberg, then chairman of CHE’s Planning and Budgeting Committee. But internal battles in the university kept it from happening. It’s unclear what if anything has changed there in the meantime.

In any case, the University of Haifa does have one clear advantage because a large portion of its student body is Arab, unlike Bar-Ilan University, where there are only a few hundred of Arab students. Also, the chairperson of the Planning and Budgeting Committee, Professor Yaffa Zilbershats, comes from Bar-Ilan University and is barred from the selection process.

However, Bar-Ilan is considered closely associated with Habayit Hayehudi, and since the chairman of the party is Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the university’s chances of winning the tender may be improved.

The three other candidates are Arab teachers’ colleges that do not have the wider support of any university. This is clearly a weak point, as the new institution will have to offer fields of study beside teaching.

Sakhnin Teachers’ College, which has a technological college for engineers adjacent to it, has earned low marks in the past in standardized testing of its students. The college was founded by Ahmad Badarna and is run by his son.

The bid by Al-Qasemi Academy, founded in 1990, will likely be hurt by its location in Baka al-Gharbiya, which is not far north. One condition of the tender is easy and convenient access for the largest number of students, who mostly live much further north. The college is apparently aware of this problem, and has retained Nir Hefetz, the prime minister’s adviser, to establish relations with a well-known academic institution on its behalf. Hefetz says he is not working as a lobbyist on anyone’s behalf and declined to comment further.

The Arab Academic College of Education in Haifa is a large, well-known institution that already has an active campus, Arab students and a location that meets the conditions of the tender. Yet it, too, does not currently offer degrees apart from education.

In addition to these drawbacks, the three Arab institutions may not be able to show they have the financial resources needed to establish a new academic institution, which is slated to enroll 2,500-3,000 students in its first stage.

Members of the Planning and Budget Committee are aware that once the five envelopes are opened they may have to be closed right back up without the process going any further.

“We have two main criteria in selecting the winning bid,” says Zilbershats. “The first is the academic quality that the new campus can offer, and the second is economic feasibility. Without these two, we cannot go forward.”

Can the three teachers’ colleges really compete with two universities that have much greater experience and resources?

“We’ll have to open the envelopes and see. We might find some wonderful plans, or we might find that none of the five truly meets the criteria and the idea will have to be shelved for the time being.”

If there is a winner, when will it be announced?

“Probably near the beginning of the upcoming school year.”

And when would the new campus open?

“In late 2017, for the beginning of the school year.”

How does opening a new academic institution square with your declared policy of closing and merging institutions?

“The intention here is not to open another institution. We are talking about an existing institution, or a branch of an existing institution. The logic behind it is simple: A number of surveys we conducted showed that a portion of the minority population, especially women, won’t come to the existing institutions. They want an Arab institution in an Arab locality. We think that such an institution could for the first time create full access to academe in the Arab sector.”

What will be taught at this institution?

“The studies won’t focus on fields that are already widely found in the Arab sector, like education or paramedical professions, but in areas that are important to the Arab sector in particular, like social work and psychology, and to the economy as a whole, like engineering.”

As you come from Bar-Ilan University, you won’t be able to be part of the selection committee.

“I think I will be part of the committee, but I won’t deal with Bar-Ilan.”

Is the committee under any pressure to select any particular institution?

“There is no pressure of any kind. We intend to examine the bids very carefully in order to achieve the best result for both the Arab sector and for higher education in Israel.”