Only 9 Percent of Israeli Arab Men Complete Undergraduate Degrees

Low graduation rate is sharp edge of sword in educational system where Arabs lag far behind their Jewish peers

Students begin the school year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, October 22, 2017.
Students begin the school year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, October 22, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Just days after the international PISA exams showed widening gaps between Israeli Jewish and Arab high school students and the government’s survey on wages revealed a 35 percent gap between the two population groups, new research shows the Jewish-Arab gap at university has also grown sharply over the last two decades.

The study, which was done at the Herzilya Interdisciplinary Center’s Aaron Institute for Economic Policy, found that the Jewish-Arab gap in the rate of graduation from bachelor’s programs at Israeli institutes of higher education widened to 38 percent in 2017, from 23 percent in 2000. The dropout rate is especially high for Arab men, it found.

Education officials have taken pride in the increase in Israeli Arab university and college enrolments over the last decade, but the study found that schools have failed at retaining the students until they completed their degrees.

The researchers say that the programs, which have also been aimed at ultra-Orthodox Jews, are too little and come too late to be effective, and that the system should start dealing with educational issues at the kindergarten and elementary school level. The failure has major implications for Israeli society and the economy, they warn.

“In a situation where only 16 percent of Arab males seek a higher education to begin with and then only 9 percent get their BA – in comparison to half of Jewish males – we can’t be talking about reducing gaps and about equality,” said Dr. Marian Tehawkho, who edited the report.

The Central Bureau of Statistics reported this week that in 2018, Arab men had average gross monthly pay of 8,190 shekels ($2,360), 39.5 percent less than for Jewish men. For women, the gap was 36 percent, with Arab women’s gross pay just 5,720 a month.

The decline in Arab graduation rates come as even as Arabs account for a disproportionate share of Israel’s young – overall Arabs make up 21 percent of Israel’s population but for ages 15-24 they comprise 30 percent. Even if one doesn’t count Haredim among Israel’s Jewish population – which makes sense, since ultra-Orthodox Jews generally shun getting a higher education – than the Arab share of the population is even greater.

Israeli Arab high school graduates are far less likely to complete the bagrut (matriculation) exam – 47 percent versus 70 percent among Israeli Jews – needed to apply to university. Those who do also tend to score less well on the psychometric exam, which most institutes of higher education demand, thereby preventing them from being accepted to the most preferred fields of study. Most graduates of Arab high schools, where the curriculum is taught in Arabic, haven’t acquired sufficient Hebrew fluency to pursue college-level studies.

“The education system acts as if no one cares. If any of the decision makers acted as if it really mattered and set goals that would really advance Arab society, everything would look different. But apparently it’s not important enough,” said Tehawkho.

She said the latest PISA exams – which are administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and showed that Arab students scored 22-28 percent lower than their Jewish peers – give little cause for optimism about the future.

“Arab performance declined and the gap with Jews widened. No Arab student excelled in the exam. How is it possible that Arab students, who make up a quarter of the Israeli educational system, had not a single top performer? The figures show there is a serious problem in Israel’s schools,” she said. “If policy makers continue to put their heads in the sand and shun responsibility, we’ll find ourselves in a terrible situation that will impact every aspect of the economy and standard of living of all of Israel’s citizens.”

The performance gap in Israeli school begins at a young age, among other reasons because Arab schools get less funding than other streams. They suffer a huge shortage of quality teachers and a lack of equipment and facilities. The Education Ministry is aware of the problem, which is evidenced not only in the PISA exam but in the locally administered Meitzav exam of elementary school students.

The Education Ministry has sought to address the problem but the budgets dedicated to it have not been enough to effect a change, nor have they been directed at the most critical age groups – kindergartners and high school students. Thus, for example, the average Arab high school spends 25,500 shekels annually per student, 40 percent less than the average for state religious schools and 20 percent less than for non-religious schools.

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