Wasted Funds, High Dropout Rate: Israeli Watchdog Gives ultra-Orthodox Education Bad Grade

Forthcoming state comptroller's report criticizes higher-ed council's lack of vital data, inadequate oversight and disproportional funding for college programs for ultra-Orthodox

Outgoing Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Israel, January 13, 2019.
עמית שאבי

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira is due to publish a harshly critical report on the implementation of plans for integrating the ultra-Orthodox into higher education in Israel.

Sources who have read a draft version of the document, due to be published in a few months, say that Shapira has singled out the Council for Higher Education, which he claims has made decisions relating to the Haredi community without having detailed goals or a database of information to gauge its success. The comptroller also slams the CHE's flawed budget policies, and especially the emphasis on and quality of the gender-segregated programs it offers Haredim.

In recent years, a substantial proportion of the hundreds of millions of shekels the CHE has spent promoting Haredi education – at least 620 million shekels ($93 million) have been allocated – was earmarked for these segregated programs.

Sources say that in his upcoming report, Shapira questions the value and success of these programs, in light of such a huge expenditure. The rate of employment and level of education of Haredi men, in particular, are still very low, and most of those who have benefitted from the new gender-segregated schemes are women, the majority of whom receive teaching degrees. This has led to a surplus of female Haredi teachers who remain unemployed.

A lack of data relating to the students and their success, as well as inadequate oversight by the CHE, are the common denominators behind the poor decisions made in the realm of Haredi education, the sources add. It emerges from the comptroller's report that the CHE has apparently missed its target of raising the number of Haredim with college and advanced degrees.

The comptroller's office found that an uptick in the number of students from that community began even before the first five-year part of the program was instituted by the CHE in 2012. The numbers then continued to rise, but that trend stopped in 2017 – the year the second five-year part of the initiative was launched, when there was actually a slight drop in Haredi enrollment in higher education.

When, in June 2017, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Prof. Yaffa Zilbershats, chairwoman of the CHE planning and budgeting subcommittee, proudly announced the success of Haredi programs, they neglected to report data showing that the 11,500 Haredi students they mentioned were only 80 percent of the goal that had been set.

In addition, they did not mention that the proportion of men enrolled in higher education courses had fallen slightly and that the increase in those receiving degrees – which the two took great pride in – was accounted for by Haredi women who studied education and teaching, an overcrowded profession with a low chance of employment.

Part of the criticism levelled in the comptroller's report apparently focuses on Zilbershats because the five-year program she led did not take into consideration either the research-based recommendations underlying it or the tasks set out in the funding agreement the CHE signed with the Finance Ministry. The failures include not collecting data on the dropout rate of Haredi students or implementing necessary changes related to scholarship policies. It is therefore difficult to know whether the public funds were managed properly.

Today, seven years after the gender-separated programs were first officially approved, the CHE still does not have a full database showing who is enrolled and who has dropped out, and information is lacking in many other areas as well. Such lacunae are considered by comptroller Shapira to be a “critical flaw,” according to the sources knowledgeable about his report. This lack of information undermines the decisions regarding funding and other issues, and does not justify assertions of success by those responsible. Without the vital data, the comptroller's staff was forced to use information from the Central Bureau of Statistics instead.

Failed budget model

One of the worrying figures mentioned in the report, say the sources, is the dropout rate among Haredi students in higher education, which has reached 60 percent – two to three times the rate for their non-Haredi counterparts.

Shapira notes that among the main obstacles for Haredim who aspire to college degrees are a lack of knowledge in “core subjects,” such as English and math; poor study skills; and problems related to age and family status – all of which augment the chances of dropping out.

In light of the alarming dropout rate, it could have been expected that the CHE's planning and budgeting subcommittee would propose ways to reduce it. But this did not happen: Between 2013 and 2018, the steering committee dealing with Haredi education discussed the problem only twice and made no decisions on the matter.

It is thus possible that a great part of the funding CHE received was wasted, the report states, especially in view of the unique budgeting model for Haredi programs: It was based on the number of students enrolled, and not on the number of graduates – as is used for budgeting most academic programs in the country.

The CHE said in response that it would respond to the claims by the state comptroller at the appropriate time.