Failing Program to Send More ultra-Orthodox Israelis to College to Get Extra Funding

Enrollment is low and dropouts are high, but the Council for Higher Education plans to invest even more money in an existing program to increase the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews attending college in Israel.

Haredi students at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, May 10, 2016.
Rami Shllush

An expensive Council for Higher Education program to increase the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews attending college in Israel is failing to boost student numbers, a new study shows.

The CHE invested a lot of money and effort trying to get the ultra-Orthodox (also known as Haredim) into higher education, including by creating special programs for them. However, fewer people than expected have enrolled, many drop out, much money has been wasted, many graduates have trouble getting jobs, and the strict separation between men and women – which was supposed to be limited to the classroom – has spread to other parts of campus.

Nevertheless, the CHE plans to invest even more money in these programs as part of its new five-year plan.

After a group of researchers, headed by Dr. Yofi Tirosh of Tel Aviv University, petitioned the High Court of Justice, the CHE took the unusual step of publishing a study of the programs’ accomplishments over the last three years.

It also invited the public to comment on the findings and promised to hold a public hearing on the issue.

The CHE considers these programs a success. But it’s hard to see how the study’s findings constitute a success, or why the programs should even be continued, much less expanded, given that most of their goals weren’t met. They are also very expensive, partly because most ultra-Orthodox students receive generous scholarships.

In 2010-11, some 6,000 Haredi students were enrolled in these programs. The goal was to add another 8,500 over the next five years, bringing the total to 14,500 in 2015-16. But in fact, only 5,000 new students enrolled – 75 percent of the target.

The CHE also failed in its goal of closing down separate institutions for ultra-Orthodox students – like the Haredi College of Jerusalem, started by Adina Bar-Shalom – that are affiliated with colleges or universities but have their own campuses. The council wanted to relocate all these institutions to within walking distance of the mother campuses, in order to better integrate ultra-Orthodox students into campus life. It also wanted to give the mother institutions full authority over their Haredi affiliates, so as to raise their academic level, which the study said was sometimes inadequate. But the separate campuses continue to exist and have even received permission to open new degree programs.

The most explosive issue, however, is gender separation, which even precipitated a High Court petition against the previous five-year plan. The study considers such separation essential to persuade ultra-Orthodox Jews to attend college. It even admitted that Haredi programs are allowed “to prevent female lecturers from teaching men” – something the CHE had previously denied.

Nevertheless, it insisted, “Not all interviewees thought gender separation detracted in any way from the academic or substantive aspect” of the programs – phraseology which actually indicates that some interviewees did deem this separation harmful.

Based on campus visits, the study also concluded that “the CHE’s decision on separation on campus wasn’t fully obeyed.” In other words, instead of separation being confined to the classroom, even the library and cafeteria have separate hours for men and women at some institutions.

“Separation is creeping into other parts of the campus beside the classrooms, and it’s happening mainly at the separate campuses,” said the Israel Democracy Institute’s Dr. Gilad Malach, who conducted the study together with Dr. Lee Kahaner of Oranim Academic College.

The CHE’s new five-year plan vows to enforce its decision to restrict gender separation to the classroom, including by imposing sanctions. But if this hasn’t happened so far, it’s unclear why it would happen over the next five years.

The gender separation also has another consequence. The study found that many ultra-Orthodox graduates have trouble entering the job market: This was especially true of those who studied at more conservative institutions, where their contact with secular people was minimal. “As a result, their entry into the job market, the vast majority of which is neither ultra-Orthodox nor segregated, is liable to be a culture shock,” the study noted.

Hebrew University and Haifa’s Technion both run ultra-Orthodox programs in which preparatory classes are gender-segregated, but afterward students attend regular classes.

Prof. Orna Kupferman, vice rector of Hebrew University, said the biggest problem she has witnessed is one the study didn’t actually mention: ultra-Orthodox students come to college unprepared because they didn’t study the core curriculum in elementary and high schools. The universities, she complained, can’t possibly compensate for this, and it’s unreasonable to expect a university “to start from zero.

“They’re telling the universities to teach the core curriculum and rectify a 12-year gap in a single year,” she said, adding that since universities are expected to be world leaders in research, “it’s not healthy for the system to deal with things the elementary schools should have dealt with earlier.”

Nehemia Steinberger, director of Hebrew University’s preparatory program for ultra-Orthodox students, cited another problem: Because yeshivas employ very different methods than universities do, these students don’t know the techniques of learning. For instance, they don’t know how to follow lessons written on a blackboard, write papers or study for exams. The myth that yeshivas teach students how to learn is nonsense, he said, and “this sacred cow of ‘Don’t interfere with us’ has created a level of learning that’s beneath contempt.”

Tirosh, a long-time crusader against the special ultra-Orthodox programs, said the CHE itself had concluded that many of the problems stem from the fact that “students don’t come into contact with the regular university and secular world. Instead of steering the ultra-Orthodox into higher education at the universities and giving them the necessary tools, the CHE sends them to fill the empty classrooms of the programs it set up, while severely discriminating against female students and lecturers.”

But Kahaner and Malach said they believe most ultra-Orthodox students wouldn’t attend college at all if they couldn’t do so on separate campuses, and the price of simply giving up on these students – for both the Israeli economy and social solidarity – is unacceptably high.

Many studies have shown that only gradual processes can change a conservative minority, they wrote, and “we found much evidence of the social, educational and cultural change that ultra-Orthodox students undergo during their studies.”

The fact that many do get jobs or advanced degrees “also attests to the success of this move,” they added. “And are we morally willing to so easily give up on providing equality of opportunity for those ultra-Orthodox who are interested in change?”