Israel is so preoccupied with regional politics that the 20th anniversary of the founding of the country's Open University is not attracting as much attention as it might. However, peace and long hoped for regional economic development are providing challenges and opportunities for all higher education institutions in the Middle East; opportunities that Israel's OU is keen to explore and exploit.
Founded in and based on the British model, Israel's distance education university offers 380 courses and has more than 20,000 enrolled students (1,500 of them in Russia). Subject areas include life sciences, computer sciences, social sciences, natural sciences, management, education, and art. From its central administrative building situated adjacent to Tel-Aviv University, the OU runs 80 study centres.
Almost 60 per cent of students participate in an intensive group tutorial scheme, often based around students from a single company. The national airline (El-Al), the major banks, the police, the armed forces, and the national telecommunications company (Bezek), all have groups enrolled in this programme.
There are similarities between the university and the OU at Milton Keynes, Britain; a commitment to the provision of quality instruction, high levels of inter-departmental contact, less of the political infighting that plagues many universities, and an esprit de corps.
Although links with Milton Keynes remain strong, there are limits to the extent to which material and techniques can be translated across the cultural divide. Attempts to adapt a history module on the Renaissance for use in Israel recently came up against this problem. While most of the course material lent itself reasonably well to translation, many of the examples used to illustrate architectural and artistic developments were drawn from churches, castles and country mansions; so it was decided to rewrite the course material to include illustrations of a more culturally relevant nature.
As with many distance education institutes, strong emphasis is placed on the development of high-quality textbooks and associated written material. Israel's OU runs the largest of the university publishing houses, printing 450,000 textbooks annually.
Menahem Yaari, the OU president, views these textbooks as one of the university's most important assets. At a time when higher education in Israel is expanding (mostly due to growth in the regional college sector), with increases in both the number of courses being offered and the range of study regimes available, the OU is well placed to offer proven learning material as a framework for the development of new diploma or degree courses.
Professor Yaari points out that distance education provides a natural organ for reaching out beyond borders. The International Committee for Distance Education recently raised the idea of co-operation between the Israeli OU and educational institutes in Amman and Nablus. As a first step in the development of a more broadly based and regionally applicable study framework, the university is starting to translate courses into Arabic.
Benjamin Neuberger, one of the proponents of the scheme, and now responsible for its development, considers the translation project as a natural extension of the open university ethos.
Many Israeli Arabs do not speak Hebrew well enough to study at Israel's major higher education institutes. Furthermore, the majority of women in the Arab communities find it difficult to leave home in order to take up a place at college or university. Social science, political science and education courses will be the first to be translated in a project that is expected to cost around $100,000 per course.
As for the next 20 years, co-operative and collaborative links with other educational institutes are viewed by Professor Yaari as essential to continued success.