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Higher Education in Israel: Background & Overview

With the advent of the 21st century and the use of technology in nearly all fields of endeavor, higher education is becoming increasingly important. To this end Israel is in the process of expanding its system of higher education, encouraging more high school graduates to take matriculation examinations, and providing a wider range of non-university degrees in areas with wide employment opportunities.

Israel has one of the most well-educated civilian populations in the world, ranking in fourth place with 46% of all adults holding at least an undergraduate degree compared to the OECD average of 33%. The higher education system comprises universities; non-university institutions of higher education that provide instruction at the bachelors degree level only; regional colleges that offer academic courses under the auspices and academic responsibility of the universities; and non-academic post secondary schools. All of these institutions are characterized by complete freedom in academic affairs.

The Council for Higher Education is the licensing and accrediting authority for higher education in Israel, an independent statutory body composed of 19-25 members appointed by the President of the state, on the recommendation of the government.

The Council is empowered by law to advise the government on the development and financing of higher education and scientific research. Its Planning and Budgeting Committee (a permanent subcommittee) submits the ordinary and development budgets for higher education to the government; allocates the global approved ordinary and development budgets provided by the government; proposes plans for the development of higher education, including financing; and ensures that the budgets of the institutions are balanced. In addition, it encourages efficiency in higher education institutions and coordinates between them.

The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics released a report in October 2015, including details about the ethnic makeup of Israel's college campuses. The report found that the percentage of students enrolled in Israeli universities who identified as Arab had significantly risen over the previous decade, from 9.8% in 2000, to 14.4% in 2015. During the same period, the percentage of Arab masters degree candidates enrolled at Israeli universities rose from 3.6% to 10.5%. Arab Ph.D. candidates saw an increase from 2.8% in 2000, to 5.9% in 2015. The most significant and surprising statistic in the report showed that the percentage of Arab masters degree candidates who were women had jumped from 40.9% in 2000 to 71% in 2015. Numbers of ultra-Orthodox university students also increased over the same period, with 9,100 Haredi Jews registered for university courses during 2015.

University Studies

In Israel, most students begin their studies aged 20-24, later than in other countries due to compulsory military service. According to a 2015 study conducted by the OECD, Israeli students are the oldest in the entire world, with a median age of 27 for attaining an undergraduate degree. A downside to this is that students graduate later and are in a hurry to get their “real lives” started, so many do not pursue an advanced degree. Students include those who have passed a series of matriculation exams (just over 40% of 18-year-olds) as well as those who do not hold a matriculation certificate but have completed a pre-academic preparatory program. Women constitute 56.5% of all students, more than their percentage in the population.

In recent years, the number of students studying social sciences, humanities and business, management and mathematics has increased considerably, while there has been a decrease in the proportion of those studying experimental sciences.

All the universities in Israel (except for the Open University and the Weizmann Institute) grant bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. Thirty-two percent of all students in universities are graduate students, a very high percentage relative to other developed countries. As the level of the degree advances, the proportion of degree recipients in the experimental sciences and mathematics increases, from 28% of bachelor’s students to 30% of master’s students and 65% of doctoral students. In earlier years it was standard practice in Israel to hire graduate students as teaching and research assistants. This practice has been reduced in scope in recent years, with a corresponding increase in fellowships granted to master’s and doctoral students. Post-doctoral fellowships are available, mostly in the physical and biological sciences; they are granted both to Israelis and persons from abroad.

Some universities offer special programs lasting one year and/or one semester for students from abroad who wish to study in Israel. These programs, built around a core of courses bearing academic credit, are designed for students enrolled in degree programs at universities abroad. Programs offer a broad academic experience in the sciences and the humanities, with emphasis on studying the Hebrew language, through an intensive course, as well as special classes in Jewish, Israeli and Middle Eastern studies.

Jewish students from abroad who wish to study in Israel may avail themselves of the services of the Student Authority, which functions within the framework of the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. This organization aims to encourage Jewish youth to study in Israel and to foster the academic and social integration of immigrant students in Israel. Services offered include help in registering at universities, preparation for academic studies, guidance, financial assistance and more.

University Research

Universities in Israel, as around the world, have a dual purpose: research and teaching. Most basic research in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities is carried out at the country’s universities, which maintain a high level of research in a wide variety of fields, while reaching excellence in select areas. Some fields of interest reflect the country’s unique situation, as the Jewish state reborn after 2,000 years, and are typified by research institutes in Jewish and Middle East studies; others reflect the presence in the country of outstanding scientists in a particular sphere of research.

The Technion - Israel Institute of Technology (est. 1924 in Haifa) is Israel’s most comprehensive technological university and ranks among the leading institutions of its kind in the Western world, carrying out research in engineering, mathematics, the natural sciences and more.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (est. 1925) is world-renowned for research in Jewish studies, Arabic and Islamic studies, and biblical and post-biblical archeology, as well as groundwater development, biomedical research and more.

The Weizmann Institute of Science (est. 1934 in Rehovot) is a research institution of international repute, emphasizing the newest techniques in science, some pioneered by Weizmann scientists. Recent studies cover subjects such as the immune system, water resource expansion, plant genetics, cell studies, magnetism, lasers, holography and many other subjects.

At Bar-Ilan University (est. 1955 in Ramat Gan) researchers actively engage in the study of traditional Jewish texts and practices and in scientific and academic research, in a broad spectrum of fields in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, mathematics and computer science.

At Tel Aviv University (est. 1956) research currently focuses on such subjects as electronic devices, systems engineering, nuclear research, petroleum and energy, computer science, superconductivity, solid state and theoretical physics, nature conservation and more.

In the University of Haifa, (est. 1963) emphasis is placed on an integrative approach to research, as well as cooperation and understanding between Arabs and Jews, with studies in information processing, the Holocaust, Zionism, archeology, maritime research and alternatives in education, and much more.

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (est. 1964) reflects its desert setting, and brings a high academic level of scholarship to the once barren region of the country. Areas of specialty include community medicine, desert research and research into the life and times of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister.

Some of the universities have established organizations for commercial utilization of their research, providing close cooperation between the universities and local industry. This provides, inter alia, a springboard for new research-based industries to break into the market.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in partnership with the Hadassah Medical Center, unveiled plans in August 2015 to establish the first interdisciplinary University-based autism research center in the Middle East. The facility is estimated to cost roughly $75 million and will function as a part of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's medical center.

Non-University Institutions of Higher Education

Regional colleges, for which the universities hold academic responsibility, provide additional opportunities for students who live in areas distant from the country’s universities, which, except for the Technion and Haifa and Ben-Gurion Universities, are located in the center of the country. Undergraduate studies may be begun at one of these colleges and completed there or at the associated university’s main campus.

Other institutions of higher education, all of which grant only undergraduate degrees, focused until recently on specific areas of study. Teacher training colleges prepare the next generation’s educators, granting a B.Ed.; they focus on teaching for different groups and in different fields of education. The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance teach graphic design, fine arts, music, dance and more to the country’s future artists and artisans. Technology, management, agriculture, textile technology, hotel management, agriculture and more are taught in other academies around the country. Paramedical professions are taught at nursing colleges associated with hospitals or with universities as well as at non-academic schools for radiology technicians, dental hygienists, etc. Some of these colleges are public institutions, like the country’s universities; others are under the auspices of the relevant government ministries; still others are privately owned. Recently, colleges such as the Tel Aviv-Jaffa College, which grants undergraduate degrees in a wide range of subjects, have begun to operate. Students at these institutions receive bachelor’s degrees and may proceed with graduate studies at the country’s universities.

Another type of non-university higher education is available at post-secondary institutions which offer non-academic programs of study, in technology, practical engineering, administration, and more.

Plans for the future include expanding Israel’s network of non-university higher education, by continuing the establishment of additional colleges, to meet the challenges of the coming century.

More Information

For further information about the country’s universities, please contact:

Bar-llan University, Ramat Gan 52900,
tel: 972-3-531-81733, fax: 972-3-5344-622

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beersheba 84105,
tel: 972-7-6461-111, fax: 972-7-647-2968

Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem 91905,
tel: 972-2-588-2111, Fax: 972-2-532-254

Open University, P.O.Box 39328, Tel Aviv 61392,
tel: 972-3-646-0460, fax: 972-3-642-2635

Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, Technion City, Haifa 32000,
tel: 972-4-8292-111, fax: 972-4-832-4530

Tel Aviv University, Ramat Aviv, Tel Aviv 69978,
tel: 972-3-640-8111, fax: 972-3-640-8371

University of Haifa, Mount Carmel, Haifa 31999,
tel: 972-4-824-0111, fax: 972-4-824-0321

Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot 76100,
tel: 972-8-9342-111, fax: 972-8-9466-996

Colleges in Israel

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry
Skop, Yarden. “More Arab students in Israel attending university in new academic year,” Haaretz (October 15, 2015)
Maltz, Judy. “No frat parties here: Israel has oldest students in the world,” Haaretz (October 29, 2015)