With respect to research, Israeli universities have impressive international funding and publication and citation rankings; however, with respect to receiving international students, Israel performs poorly compared to the OECD average of 9%, with only 1.4% of its student population coming from abroad.
This has caused concern and attracted the attention of the Council for Higher Education – Israel’s central body charged with coordinating the higher education system – and of its funding arm, the Planning and Budgeting Committee.
In a new multi-year plan announced in July 2017, internationalisation was identified as a key focus, with the goal of doubling the number of international students to 25,000 within five years.
Historical development and contemporary issues
While the first students at Israeli universities in the pre-State era were predominantly from Eastern Europe, since the early decades of the State, most students in Israeli universities have been local. Due to the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, regional student mobility to Israel is nearly non-existent. Yet, international students have not been ignored.
Starting in 1955, international student programmes targeting American Jewish students on a junior year or semester abroad were developed as a result of the coordination between universities, the government and diaspora community organisations.
In addition to the academic component (emphasising the Hebrew language, Jewish studies, Israel studies and Middle Eastern studies), cultural and social activities, tours throughout the country and encounters with local Israelis also formed an integral part of the programmes.
Since the language of instruction in these programmes was predominately English and students required specialised support (for visa, housing, etc), separate infrastructures gradually developed to service these programmes and students.
While the programmes were open to all, and international students from a variety of backgrounds were welcomed, the programmes were primarily targeted at a Jewish population, as demonstrated by marketing and recruitment, funding, support services, and the formal and informal curriculum.
In contemporary times, international offerings at institutions have expanded to encompass short courses, summer programmes and degree-granting programmes at the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral levels. International degree-seeking students – at the bachelor and masters (without thesis) levels – continue to be predominantly Jewish.
While tuition paid by these students may represent revenue ventures for some institutions, the state, non-profit organisations and Jewish diaspora organisations provide students with financial support with an eye towards promoting solidarity, Jewish identity and Israel-diaspora relations throughout the world.
In the past, Israel attracted an impressive proportion of the American study abroad population to these programmes. In the 1996 Open Doors report, Israel was the eighth most popular destination for study abroad for American students, with almost the same number of students studying in Israel (2,621) as in all of South America (2,683).
However, as international student mobility rapidly increased, Israel began to lose ground to other destinations and, in 2017, Israel fell to an unranked position with 2,435 students.
This decrease has multiple causes, including the precarious security situation. However, it is clear that Israel has not been able to maintain its competitive positioning in the United States. In addition to the traditional Jewish population on international programmes, Israel has also fostered exchanges and partnerships for student mobility, particularly with countries of strategic economic and political importance.
Beginning in 2008 with the opening of a national Tempus office and the subsequent expansion of Erasmus+, there has been an influx of European students to Israeli campuses. In 2015-17, the Erasmus+ programme brought 2,471 students and staff from the European Union to Israel.
Furthermore, since 2012, there have been significant government initiatives to bring closer collaboration with China and India – including sponsorship of Chinese and Indian research students (masters with thesis, PhD and postdoctoral students) – with academic cooperation forming a basis for partnership.
Expanding the international student intake
The new multi-year plan of the Council for Higher Education (CHE) builds on these patterns and aims to expand the intake of two categories of international students: 1) excellent research students with a special focus on China and India; and 2) excellent Jewish students, particularly from the United States and Canada.
Policy documents and reports emanating from the CHE reveal the drivers behind these new policies: Israel hopes to build close economic and political relationships with these countries while strengthening the academic level of its higher education institutions and its research and development capabilities to compete in the “global knowledge economy”.
It is conspicuous that motives of peace building and cross-cultural understanding are absent, despite the ongoing conflict. The overall outcome is that Israel has an internationalisation policy containing two distinct strands: research students, particularly from countries with which Israel wants to improve economic and political ties; and students from the Jewish diaspora, connecting to the identity of the state as the Jewish homeland.
This is reflected in the latest CHE statistics from 2016, which show that, overall, there are slightly more Jewish (5,370) than non-Jewish students (4,700) in Israel and that there is a clear split between the research and non-research tracks.
Research students (masters with thesis, PhD and postdoctoral students) are predominantly non-Jewish, while Jewish students are predominantly on non-research tracks (study abroad, BA and taught masters).
In the current plan, a number of issues receive insufficient attention, such as the historical infrastructures for international students and the potential challenges of attracting and supporting different types of students, and there is little guidance about how the two strands should be managed.
The two target groups – with different normative references and personal, ethnic and religious connections to the country – will pose a challenge to Israeli universities trying to attract, accommodate and support both groups.
In line with institutional missions, there is evidence that some universities are focusing on one group. According to a report from the CHE in 2016, the Weizmann Institute of Science, a research institution, has the lowest percentage of Jewish students, while IDC Herzliya – which specialises in bachelor and taught masters programmes – has the largest Jewish student population.
Universities aiming to attract both populations and with substantial concentrations of both populations may face the greatest challenges in developing a comprehensive internationalisation strategy.
Will the new international student scheme be a success? Will there be a (further) specialisation (and separation) in ‘research’ and ‘non-research’ international students? And in this case, is this not a missed opportunity to bridge and reimagine international higher education in Israel?
Annette Bamberger is a PhD candidate at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London, United Kingdom. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.
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