About 90 students began their studies two weeks ago at Al-Qasemi Academic College in Baka al-Garbiyeh, an Israeli Arab city near the West Bank. Both students and faculty members were proud; this is the first college in an Arab town that isn’t a teacher’s college.
But it’s not clear how long the happiness will last. The school opened without permission from the Council for Higher Education in Israel, whose members say that they can’t recall another violation of the law this blatant.
As part of the ongoing disagreement between the parties, the council complained to the police and the attorney general, while the college petitioned the High Court of Justice and sued the council for libel. The college is also trying to enlist senior politicians in the battle, including United Arab List chair Mansour Abbas, Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Freige and the council’s own chair, Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton.
Shasha-Biton arranged for college officials to meet with her adviser on higher education this week, and the college’s rector, Baha Zoabi, said he was trying to find a solution. But a source on the council termed it “strange” that the council’s chair was “abetting scofflaws,” and Shasha-Biton herself said her adviser made it clear that the college “must comply with the law.”
Other colleges have advertised themselves inaccurately, violated rules (like those on gender separation) and sometimes even introduced programs before acquiring necessary permits. But opening an entire college without a permit is a new nadir, and a criminal offense.
“There’s never been a case this serious,” one higher education official said.
In early October, the council published an unusual statement on its Facebook page and leading Arabic-language websites. Al-Qasemi Academic College “isn’t an institution of higher education and has no permit, recognition or license,” the statement read. “It isn’t eligible to enroll or admit students,” and its programs aren’t accredited and therefore won’t provide recognized academic degrees.
There’s no dispute over most of the facts. In 2007, the college’s founders applied for permission to open an institution offering five bachelors degree programs. The council reviewed and offered favorable opinions of three of these programs eight to 10 years ago.
But in 2013, the council updated its criteria for accreditation. Since then, it has reviewed the academic, legal and budgetary aspects of the college’s application, frozen the process for two years and then engaged in three years of endless back-and-forth correspondence.
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The council said that changes in the curriculum since the proposed degree programs were originally reviewed necessitate a new review, which could be done only after the college met the financial requirements for opening. The latter issue seems to be the main sticking point.
An audit by an outside accountant convinced the council that the college, which offers undergraduate degrees in business administration, biotechnology and communications at 28,500 shekels ($9,100) a year, more than double what Israel’s public colleges and universities charge, was not financially viable. An internal council document obtained by Haaretz said the institution, which receives no state funding, presented a budget “that relies on unrealistically high tuition and low expenditures.”
Despite being offered “several chances to strengthen its budget,” the council said, the college still hasn’t demonstrated “the requisite financial stability.” Numerous small colleges have collapsed in recent years, making the council more attentive to the financial hurdles such schools face.
One of the college’s founders who is also an accountant rejected the council’s financial arguments, pointing out that many Arab students pay similar tuition fees or even more at other Israeli or foreign colleges.
The college has also refused to accept this decision and published ads this summer announcing its October opening. In response to the council’s warnings that it was breaking the law – and also to Haaretz – the school said the new rules instituted in 2013 don’t apply: It was accepted under the old rules, which allowed colleges to open and enroll students as soon as their degree programs received favorable reviews, which its programs received a decade ago.
“We’re obeying the law; it’s the Council for Higher Education that’s violating it,” Zoabi said. But the council deems this a misinterpretation of the law.
Zoabi said students are aware that the college isn’t currently accredited and have to sign a waiver to this effect. But even such a waiver requires the council’s approval. The college petitioned the High Court of Justice a few months ago, but later withdrew the petition. With its libel suit against the council still pending, the college says the council’s warning notices drove away half of its enrolled students.
Aside from the budgetary issue, another discussion is whether a college specifically for the Arab population is a good idea. The number of Arab college students has doubled in the last decade and Arabs now make up 17 percent of total Israeli college students, and 21 percent of the general population.
“Creating ghettos for them would be a mistake,” a senior higher education official said. “Studying in Arabic makes it very hard to integrate into the job market afterward.”
Zoabi countered that thousands of Israeli Arabs currently attend college in the West Bank, Europe and northern America. “Instead of them going so far away, we’re proposing that they study close to home.” Moreover, he charged, it’s no accident that Israel doesn’t have a single Arab academic college. “The real story is making higher education accessible to Arab students,” he said, and the council’s budgetary concerns are just “an excuse.”
Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Freige, who also noted that none of Israel’s dozens of colleges are located in an Arab town, said that Al-Qasemi College's "establishment should have been a start toward rectifying the state’s attitude toward higher education in the Arab community.”
The council has sought a closure order against the college from the police and attorney general. Meanwhile, studies continue.