At Israeli Design School, Parents' Cash for Equipment Speaks Louder Than Art

At Jerusalem's prestigious Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, students have to spend thousands of shekels annually just to keep up.

Tomer Appelbaum

After four hard years of study at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Noga (all the names in this story are made up) came to a clear conclusion: “Bezalel is a school for the rich only.” She made this claim at the end of a long letter to TheMarker, which sums up the financial pain of being a student in Bezalel’s acclaimed animation department.

She sent her missive at the end of July, during the high-pressure days before the presentation of her pre-graduation project.

“Bezalel isn’t a private college and doesn’t charge excessive tuition, so I didn’t have expectations about the basic equipment we’d be supplied with. But all students know that if they don’t buy the right expensive equipment they won’t succeed,” she wrote.

“True, they don’t officially demand that we buy such equipment, but whoever buys high-quality equipment enjoys a large advantage — they can bring their capabilities and work to the highest levels.”

Noga’s case is no exception. Bezalel students from all departments provide a consistent picture: Students must spend thousands of shekels out of pocket to meet the school’s requirements. In some cases the annual outlays for  equipment and materials is higher than the tuition — around 11,000 shekels ($2,800) a year.

On top of this, the school’s requirements are so tough there’s little time to  make money on the side. But many students need money, so all-nighters are routine. This leads to chronic fatigue, and of course grades suffer. The struggle for financial survival only worsens the enormous academic pressure.

All students interviewed for this article asked to remain anonymous out of fear that exposure could damage their futures. Even faculty members declined to be identified. None of Bezalel’s nine department heads responded to questions from TheMarker.

Exhausting bureaucracy

Bezalel, as a public institution, is financed by the taxpayer; tuition is exactly the same as at publicly funded universities. The principle is equal opportunity for higher education at Israel’s leading academic institution for design.

But the heavy out-of-pocket expenses and living costs have destroyed this myth. In addition, students say Bezalel’s management doesn’t reveal the true costs to prospective students.

Yes, students can borrow equipment from the academy, but they say a trip to the central warehouse entails exhausting bureaucracy — and students from certain departments get preference.

For example, a computer facility on Bezalel’s Mount Scopus campus has digital drawing tablets, printers and everything else a design student needs. But it closes at 10 P.M. and is shut on weekends.

In her letter, Noga described the expenses of a first-year animation student.

“The cost of a digital drawing tablet is between 4,000 shekels and 15,000 shekels,” she wrote. “You can buy something similar for 2,500 shekels, but the difference will show in the work the student hands in. In addition, you need a professional camera, a powerful personal computer and two external drives.”

All told, she estimates the cost for this starting equipment at around 15,000 shekels.

For her part, Bezalel’s spokeswoman Michal Turgeman says the school grants scholarships on a needs basis to around 250 students a year. The scholarships range between 30% of tuition to full tuition. The academy also grants scholarships for mentoring and similar activities for around 100 other students.

In addition, the academy awards grants to around 140 students based on excellence in their studies and outside activities Many students receive scholarships from outside foundations.

As for discounts arranged between Bezalel and equipment stores, Turgeman says there's no such thing. "The student union works for discounts for students," she said. "At the beginning of the year there are significant discounts, sometimes 30% to 40% in the art stores. Usually it's around 10%.”

She says information on students' expenses is detailed on the Bezalel registration site. And there are differences among students because students simply use their own judgment.

"One chooses to work with recycled materials and others buy products of their choice," she said. "The result is measured based on academic values, not the quality of the materials."

A lot cheaper in the U.S.

“I had no idea that I was going to spend such an amount," said Efrat, who graduated this year in photography. In her first year she was virtually the only student who worked while studying because she had no choice, she said.

“Because I worked, I missed meetings of study groups and couldn’t join the students who did projects together," she said. "It made me feel out of the loop."

Efrat spent nearly 20,000 shekels on professional cameras. “A camera can cost at least 2,000 shekels, but hardly anyone will buy at that price. They'll spend 7,000 shekels,” she said. Also, Efrat bought a non-digital camera for 3,000 shekels, and a tripod and light meter for 1,500 shekels.

A lecturer in the photography department shed a bit more light on the students' outlays.

“You immediately see the economic differences between them. A lot of students don't have the money to make large prints, so they'll print small on cheap paper," he said. "They only hand in work with high-quality printing at the end of the year, and then it turns out they're lacking skills because they're used to compromising.”

As for the institution’s high academic standards, he added: “Bezalel gives the feeling that here we want to reach the very best in everything — content, talent, products. But the cost of photography materials is insane. In the United States film costs up to $10; here it costs 60 to 70 shekels. Even the cost of paper is three times higher than in the U.S.”

Eliran, another student in the photography department, didn't even want TheMarker to mention what year he's in. “The quality of the materials unequivocally affects the quality of the results,” he said, admitting that the faculty "didn't necessarily push us to invest in the very best — it's something that built up slowly.”

Eliran too worked while he studied, a tough slog. “The financial expenditures are very large and the academic framework is very intensive — five days a week from morning to night," he said.

"All-nighters are routine for most students. I did Fridays, and I know people do shifts at restaurants and other places on weekends.”

Since students spend thousands of shekels a year on equipment, the art supply store Ventura has a location on the Mount Scopus campus. But many students say the store takes advantage of its location and drives up prices.

“The store is very expensive and exploits the fact that sometimes instructors ask their students during classes to go buy equipment immediately," Noga said. "So we have no choice but to buy there.”

According to Nadav Heipert, chairman of Bezalel’s student union, “we conduct pricing research for the average equipment necessary for first-year students by department .... We’re talking about thousands of shekels per year in every department."

After all, metallurgy students have to buy gold, architecture students have to buy expensive materials for building models, industrial-design students have to buy iron and wood, and fashion-design students have buy fabric. Most expenses occur during the first year — after that it evens out.

He says students receive a price-comparison chart on their first day at Bezalel, not that everything is always clear.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into, financially speaking," he said. "The information I got was during open houses, when the head of my department talked about it and said ‘a student with no money won’t survive here.’ No one said this in an official capacity, though.”

So how do they get by?

“Like all the young people in Israel, support from their parents," Heipert said. "And those who don’t have their parents’ support simply don’t sleep.”