Powerful figures in Israeli higher education are opposing finance ministry proposals to throw open the first year of university to any student who passes matriculation.
Under the ministry plan, psychometric examinations faced by would-be students would be abolished and all Bagrut (matriculation) holders would be eligible to study at university. After a year, the university would decide whether the student should continue, on the basis of his or her grades.
One alternative under consideration is to introduce a threshold "magic figure" comprising the sum of the grades of the three main external Bagrut examinations (mathematics, English and either Hebrew or Arabic) together with the student's school marks. Another option would be for psychometric tests to remain optional.
Nehemia Levtzion, chair of the planning and budgeting committee of the Council of Higher Education, supports psychometric testing and believes that if the first year of university were opened to all, the colleges would be harmed.
"Psychometric tests represent aptitude for academic studies. Scientific methods have some affinity to western, secular ways of thinking. Psychometric tests look at these aptitudes," he said.
Madj al-Haj, a professor of sociology at Haifa University, chair of the university's centre for multi-culturalism and educational research, and a member of a steering committee charged with examining higher education in the Arab sector, said that psychometric exams represented "the main barrier blocking the accessibility of Arabs to higher education in Israel, mainly in terms of the high-ranking subjects, like computer science, medicine, psychology".
He believes that the magic figure system should be checked against past years before it is implemented, to see if it would have improved Arab representation.
"One of the steering committee's suggestions was not to abolish the psychometric test, but to have it as an alternative," Professor al-Haj said. "Academic institutions should be prepared... to open all the doors. This would attract more people from the periphery. Universities should be prepared to absorb them."
Professor al-Haj added that Arab students faced barriers to progression before the psychometric test. "The starting point is kindergarten (and then) through high school. Arab students are discriminated against with a lack of basic services, and a lack of appropriate (teaching) methods, opening the way to creative and critical thinking," he said.
Ohad Marani, finance ministry budget director, said the aim was to "develop a programme with the universities and the Council of Higher Education by the next academic year". He said the idea was to locate university departments such as economics, mathematics, and social sciences, that could start absorbing the students.
"(We will) try to give a fair chance to students who didn't make it in high school. The Bagrut doesn't always reflect the real potential of the student," he said.