NAZARETH // Obstacles to Israel's Arab minority participating in higher education have resulted in a record number of Arab students taking up places at universities in neighbouring Jordan, a new report reveals. Figures compiled by Dirasat, a Nazareth-based organisation monitoring education issues, show 5,400 Arab students from Israel are at Jordanian universities - half the number of Arabs studying in Israel itself.
Despite the fact that most Israeli Arab students in Jordan interviewed by the researchers expressed a preference to attend university in Israel, the numbers heading to Jordan have grown four-fold since 2004. College-age Arabs, representing nearly one-quarter of their age group in Israel, are heavily under-represented in Israeli higher education, at about eight per cent of the student intake, according to official statistics. Of those Israelis who pass their matriculation exams, three times as many Jews as Arabs are accepted into Israeli universities.
"Our findings should raise serious questions about the hurdles that have been put in the way of Arab students that make them feel they have no choice but to study abroad," said Yousef Jabareen, a law professor at Haifa University and head of Dirasat. Typical of the new exodus is Haneen Bader, 23, from the village of Turan in the Lower Galilee, who is in her third year studying Islamic jurisprudence at Jordan University in the capital, Amman.
Dirasat's researchers were surprised to find that nearly one-third of all Israeli Arab students in Jordan are women. "We live in a patriarchal society and women are still usually expected to remain close to the family home until they marry," said Dr Jabareen. But, he added, good travel links between Amman and the Galilee - and a shared language and culture - made regular visits to Jordan a practical and inexpensive option for Israel's 1.2 million Arab citizens.
Ms Bader said she was the first member of her family to study outside Israel but that, after initial doubts, her parents were won over when they saw the campus. "Now they very much approve of my decision." She added that some of her friends thought of Jordanian universities as second-rate. "That comes from ignorance," she said. "I prefer to study in Jordan because it is where I can freely speak and read Arabic, and where my traditions and religion are respected.
"Also, it is far more cosmopolitan in Amman. We have students from Turkey, the Middle East, Europe and the US all studying together. Israel seems a very closed, small-minded place in comparison." Ms Bader said studying in Jordan had been good for her self-esteem too. "In Israel, Arabs are encouraged to regard themselves as having inferior minds, of being stupid. "But in Jordan I see that there are Arab teachers with great intellects. The Arabs outside Israel are better than us - and that reminds me that the problem is not with our minds but with our situation."
Khaled Arar, a professor at Beit Berl College, near Kfar Sava, and a co-author of the Dirasat report, said the trend towards Israeli Arab students attending Jordanian universities had begun on a small scale in 1998, following the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan. Dirasat estimates that last year alone Israeli Arab students spent more than US$80 million (Dh294m) on their education in Jordan.
Dr Arar listed several factors responsible for the recent increase in the popularity of Jordanian universities. Most significant was Israeli universities' growing reliance on culturally biased psychometric exams. Nearly half of Arab students who passed their matriculation exams failed to win a place in higher education because they failed the psychometric test, compared with just 20 per cent of Jewish applicants.
"The gap in psychometric scores between Jewish and Arab students has remained steady - at more than 100 points out of a total of 800 - since 1982. That alone should have raised suspicions." He noted that a decision by Israeli universities to scrap the psychometric test in 2003 to help "weaker" groups was reversed when the admission of Arab students rocketed. A statement from the universities justified the about-turn on the grounds that they had been referring to the weaker parts of the Jewish population.
Dr Arar said Israel had also raised the minimum qualifying age to study many subjects, often to 20 or 21 years old, especially in fields popular with Arab students such as medicine, pharmacy, social work, physiotherapy and speech therapy. The delay was justified by the university authorities, he said, on the grounds that most Jews are conscripted into the army for three years after finishing school.
Arab youngsters, he added, could rarely afford to wait three or four years to begin their studies: most faced problems finding work and were often ineligible for welfare benefits. Among women, there was also strong family pressure to marry early. Finally, the use of Hebrew, both in admission interviews and as the language of university tuition, meant many Arab youngsters leaving school, where Arabic was their first language, feared they would be at a strong disadvantage against their Jewish peers.
Areej Dirini, 38 and a divorcee, takes her three children with her as she splits her time between her parents' home in Nazareth and her studies in Amman. A mature student completing a masters in graphic design at al Zeitouni university, Ms Dirini said she had spent many years living with her former husband in the Gulf and lacked the confidence to study in Hebrew. "I'm planning to do a doctorate next but I'm afraid to study in Israel after being out of the country so long," she said.
Years of demands for the establishment of a university, teaching in Arabic, in Israel's largest Arab city, Nazareth, said Dr Jabareen, had been blocked by successive governments. Dr Arar noted that the phenomenon of Arab citizens being forced to study abroad because of problems accessing higher education was not new. "From the 1960s onwards the Israeli Communist Party offered scholarships to universities in the Soviet bloc because many of the brightest Arab students were denied places in Israel. As a result, many of our current leaders were educated in Eastern Europe."