In Blow to Tuition Reform, Israeli Universities Veto Free Online English Courses

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A class in a large lecture hall at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which hired the largest number of returning academics.
A class at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which hired the largest number of returning academics.Credit: Tess Scheflan

Israeli universities have unanimously rejected a proposal that would have allowed students to take free online English-language courses, thereby gutting a reform meant to lower tuition costs.

Israeli students are required to achieve a certain level of proficiency in English to obtain a bachelor’s degree. Until now, students who failed to attain this level had to take courses at their own institutions, which according to Education Minister Naftali Bennett can cost up to 10,000 shekels ($2,600).

He proposed letting students take free online courses offered by the Open University of Israel, though they would still have to pass their own institution’s exam at the end of the semester. The colleges agreed, and began instituting the reform when the current semester opened two weeks ago. But the universities refused.

The national student union sent a letter to the forum of university rectors protesting this decision, which will affect some 10,000 students. But last week, the forum wrote back and said it had no intention of reversing course.

The rectors’ letter charged that the Council for Higher Education “didn’t consult with any professional body at the universities about developing the online courses. No discussion was held about the efficacy of purely online courses, without the facilitation of a lecturer, in teaching a foreign language. Moreover, the institutions weren’t given any chance to examine the online courses and make comments.”

The forum also said the universities don’t accept students who need extensive remedial English, so most students require only a one-year course costing 1,000 shekels to 2,000 shekels.

The online courses offer only six to 15 percent of the hours the council requires for university courses, the letter continued. And finally, it argued, “no university ... can test material it didn’t teach.”

The council responded that the universities are obligated to implement the reform.