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Higher Education in Israel: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Established in the late 1960's as the University of the Negev, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) was given its current title in 1973 to commemorate the recent death of former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his dream to see the development of the Negev.

With campusese in Beer Sheva and Sde Boker, BGU offers degree-granting faculties in Engineering Sciences; Humanities and Social Sciences; Natural Sciences; Health Sciences; and the School of Management. The University has assumed the mission of spearheading the development of the Negev, and as a result has an expertise in desert research. Other areas of research and study include immigrant absorption, urban renewal projects, environmental problems, applications of biotechnology to industry, and solar energy plants and their utilization in industry and agriculture.

Ben-Gurion University is intimately involved in the development of Israel's southern arid region, the Negev, which comprises nearly 60% of the country, but contains only 10% of its population. It plays a central role in the educational, social, and industrial developments of the region. The university promotes academic research with commercial applications as the key to economic development in the Negev. Through its pioneering research in arid zone communities, BGU has established a basis for cooperation with countries sharing a similar climate, particularly in the Middle East.

Approximately 50% of the students originate from the Negev, 40% from the center of the country, and 10% from the north. New immigrant students are absorbed in all BGU departments.

The university has four faculties:

(1) The Faculty of Health Sciences, founded in 1974, is located on the campus of the Soroka Medical Center, in close proximity to the university. Its establishment brought about major changes in health care in the Negev while developing an innovative medical education program. From the first year, students integrate academic theory with clinical care. The orientation of the school is strongly focused on community medicine. The faculty and students work in Beersheba at the Soroka Medical Center and travel to development towns, kibbutzim, and Bedouin encampments.

There are three Divisions: Health in the Community; the Division of Basic Medical Sciences, and the Division of Clinical Medicine. The faculty offers graduate degrees in Medical Science. The Recanati School of Nursing and Physiotherapy is also part of the faculty.

(2) The Faculty of Engineering Sciences comprises six departments: Nuclear Engineering, Materials Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Industrial Engineering and Management and the Program for Biotechnology.

(3) The Faculty of Natural Sciences consists of five departments: Mathematics and Computer Sciences, Physics, Chemistry, Life Sciences, and Geology and Mineralogy. Its scientists pursue both basic and applied research projects, many of which have served to advance the growth of science-based industry and the agricultural development of the Negev.

(4) The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences has eleven departments: Behavioral Sciences; Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies; Economics; Education; Geography and Environmental Development; Hebrew Language; Hebrew Literature; Foreign Literature and Linguistics; History; Philosophy; and Social Work. The unit for teaching English as a Foreign Language is also part of the faculty. The Department of Behavioral Sciences integrates psychology, sociology, and anthropology. The Hebrew Literature Department has the only Master's Program in Creative Writing in the country, and in the Department of Social Work all third-year students are required to develop active projects within the Negev community.

The Overseas Student Program is given in English for either one semester or a full academic year. The curriculum focuses on Human Resettlement (Russians, Ethiopians, and Bedouin), Desert Studies and Archeology, and Pre-Med. The School for Continuing Education offers a wide variety of courses to the Negev community at large.

Since the beginning of BGU activities, its scientists have engaged in basic and applied research. This covers widely ranging areas as desert research, alternative energy, development of water resources, chemistry, biotechnology, agriculture, and medicine, regional development, social ecology, the David Ben-Gurion era, and medical education.

Originally found in 1957 as the Institute for Arid Zone Research, the Institutes for Applied Research became part of the university in 1973. Comprising the institutes are the Institute for Chemistry and Chemical Technology and the Institute for Agriculture and Applied Biology. The institutes for applied research are geared toward tapping the various natural resources for the region's development. Numerous plant species with industrial and agricultural value have been selected and developed for desert growth. Experiments with underground brackish water irrigation have resulted in new cash crops for Negev settlements. Other projects include research on food technology, desalination, recycling of waste water, the application of waste heat and solar energy for refrigeration and direct-contact cooling, and the synthesis of organic compounds for chemical industries.

The Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research was established in Sede Boqer as a national center for arid zone research. Its goal is to provide the knowledge and skills to transform arid lands of low productivity, human deprivation and famine into areas that are productive and self-sustaining.

Members of the institute's 15 units work together to explore a wide array of problems relating to the settling of the desert. The fields of study touch on man's habitat and social organization, climate and the desert environment, water resources and natural energy sources, such as solar energy, the adaptive mechanisms to climatic extremes of plants and animals, and the development of unique biotechnologies suitable for desert areas.

By government decision, BGU was entrusted with some 750,000 documents associated with the late David Ben-Gurion, founding father and first prime minister of Israel. These papers form the Ben-Gurion Archives and serve the Ben-Gurion Research Center. They reflect the ideology, political activities, and spiritual testament of Ben-Gurion – the man, the Zionist, and the statesman – and constitute an invaluable record of the creation of the State of Israel. At the Ben-Gurion Research Center scholars study the Ben-Gurion era, Zionism, the history of Israel, and related subjects. The center publishes and disseminates relevant studies and, in conjunction with the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, provides academic courses and educational programs.

BGU sponsors a host of innovative programs as part of its outreach service to the community. All students who receive financial aid from BGU commit themselves to participating in one of the university's wide range of social action programs, which include the Open Apartments Project, in which the students live in underprivileged neighborhoods and serve as part-time community workers; the "Kidma" (Progress) Program, which promotes the advancement of new immigrants from Ethiopia; a special program of Assistance for the Elderly; and the Matriculation Examination Program for the Bedouin Sector.

A $1 million venture capital fund for BGU students was launched in May 2018.  Current and former students are able to submit proposals for funding, with the goal of encouraging innovative research and ideas.  

In July 2018, the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) announced a $2 million investment in the cybersecurity research center at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.  This funding will aid in the development of artificial intelligence and machine-learning techniques in the banking industry. 

Sources: Rebecca Stadlin Amir. RBC invests $2M in Israeli cybersecurity research, Israel21C, (July 29, 2018);
Rebecca Stadlen Amir, Ben-Gurion University launches $1m student venture fund, Israel21c, (May 28, 2018);
Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
Mitchell G. Bard and Moshe Schwartz. 1001 Facts Everyone Should Know About Israel. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005.