Israel’s top technological university has seen the size of its Arab student body triple over the last decade. This growth spurt, according to the president of the Technion, has nothing to do with affirmative action — which is nonexistent at the university — and everything to do with closing educational gaps.
While Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics said Arabs made up 20.7 percent of Israel’s 8.412 million citizens in 2015, Haaretz newspaper cites the Council for Higher Education as saying that the ratio of Arab students in higher education has only grown modestly over the past five years — from 9.3% to 13.2%.
The great exception to this is the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology, the highly regarded university sometimes referred to as “the MIT of Israel,” where currently 20% of students are Arab.
Prof. Peretz Lavie, the president of the Technion, told The Times of Israel that his university’s achievement is the result of a rigorous program preparing students to meet admissions requirements before they apply. It is, he said, also a total rejection of affirmative action, a policy that usually provides eased admission standards for historically disadvantaged populations.
Twelve years ago, when just 7% of students in the Technion were Arab, the university began its NAM program, a Hebrew acronym that translates roughly as Outstanding Arab Youth. The program, which is paid for by Jewish philanthropy, begins with an all-expenses-paid 10-month “boot camp” in mathematics, physics, English and Hebrew.
Israeli business man and philanthropist Eitan Wertheimer is the founder and primary supporter of the program, which to date has seen 300 participants.
Participants in the program receive full funding for tuition fees, a living stipend of NIS 800 ($210) a month and a free laptop. Spared of a financial burden, the students can focus on their studies.
After the camp, its participants — who are accepted to the program based on their good performance in high school — are ready to apply to the Technion at the same academic standard as every other candidate.
During a recent Knesset discussion, Jewish Home MK Betzalel Smotrich charged that “Arab students are getting into the Technion because they’re lowering the minimum requirements due to affirmative action.”
Lavie vehemently rejected this claim. “There is no affirmative action at all in the Technion. Not for any group, and not in any of the faculties,” he said.
The NAM program has not only succeeded in pushing students through the admissions process, but has dramatically decreased dropout rates.
When the program began 12 years ago, the dropout rate among first year Arab students at the Technion was 75%. Currently, according to Lavie, that rate has plummeted to 15%, a figure very close to that of the Jewish student body.
During their studies, NAM participants are assigned a mentor, and discussion groups help students adapt to the new academic environment and any emotional problems that may arise.
“It’s their first time leaving the house,” said Lavie, pointing out that Arab students are usually 3-4 years younger than their Jewish peers because they likely didn’t serve in the military.
“Emotional adaptation is as important as academic adaptation,” Lavie stressed.
In a positive sign for the economic potential of the Arab community — where employment rates are low partly because a majority of women do not work — Lavie pointed out that 61% of the 527 Arab students in the incoming class is female.
“I don’t think there is any parallel for this among any other university, even among the Jewish population. The number of students in the Technion university-wide is about 37% women and 63% men,” he said.
Lavie believes female Arab students outnumber their male counterparts at his university due to their desire for “social mobility.” This, he said, is “no doubt dependent on education.”
“For many Arab kids, education like a Technion degree is a pathway to finding a proper job in Israel,” he said.
The average salary among Israel’s Arabs is less than half that of the average pay for Jews, according to 2015 CBS statistics. And with unemployment among working-age Arabs at close to 50%, breaking into Israel’s booming high-tech industry could be a way to end the cycle of poverty.
A survey of 1,500 recent Arab graduates of the Technion found that nearly all of them landed jobs in their first year after graduation. Of that number, 20% were employed at international high-tech companies.
In October, Haaretz accused the Technion of “squeezing out” Arab students after raising the required score on the Hebrew proficiency exam from 105 to 113. The highest score on the exam is 150, while the average is 92, Haaretz reported.
But Lavie argued the new requirement was a measure of tough love, and said the paper missed the mark in its reporting.
“Haaretz was vicious and so off-course. We realized that Hebrew is a key to the success of freshman students in the Technion and that the number of dropouts during the first year is dependent on Hebrew proficiency,” he said.
He said the decision on the score was made after two years of deliberation, and will only come into effect next year, giving prospective students a chance to prepare for the new, more rigorous standard.
Yet while the number of Arab students at the Technion has skyrocketed in recent years, those choosing to go onto graduate programs has not grown proportionally. This is a fact of life, Lavie said.
Many Arab students need to support themselves and their families as soon as possible, he said, so adding on extra years for graduate and post-graduate studies is not an option. But like enrollment, this is an issue currently under the school’s microscope.
“We are now trying to increase the number of graduate, PhD and post-doc students in order to increase the number of Arab faculty members,” Lavie said.
“This is the next challenge. We have Arab faculty members, but not enough.”