Minister vows to continue revolution

May 3, 1996

If the Israeli government is re-elected in this month's elections, education minister Amnon Rubinstein wants to keep his job and attain the targets he set three years ago.

These include a 50 per cent pass rate in the matriculation exams, and 33 per cent in first degrees. "I would like to reach the goals by the year 2000. That would be a revolution for Israeli society and would mean that the gap between Jews and Arabs, European Jews and Oriental Jews is half way to being closed," he says.

Professor Rubinstein, a 65-year-old journalist and lawyer with a PhD in law from the London School of Economics, and newly appointed head of the leftwing Meretz party's election staff, has been education minister for four years.

He divides his time between party politics and leading Israel's second largest ministry (after defense). As education minister, he is also chairman of the Council for Higher Education, which sets university policy.

When he started as education minister, Professor Rubinstein says, he faced a pretty dismal situation. "There was a feeling that the whole system was waiting to be restructured." He describes the great bitterness at that time among Israelis who could not get into university or other higher education institutions.

Since then, a revolution has taken place at the ministry. It started with the education budget, which was increased from 6.5 billion shekels (Pounds 1.3 billion) in 1992 to 16 billion shekels in 1996. This figure, which represented 9.5 per cent of the GNP in 1995, today represents 14 per cent of the total government budget of 173 billion shekels.

Professor Rubinstein and his officials began to implement across-the-board reforms, ranging from a 50 per cent raise in teachers' salaries, an increase in the number of hours that students had to study, the implementation of five programmes to increase the number of weaker students who could pass their matriculation, a new method in these exams to lessen the load and enable more students to pass, and the accreditation of greater numbers of "academic" colleges offering academic degrees to deal with the huge demand for higher education.

These measures achieved staggering results, including a rise in the number of matriculating students from 1,500 to 20,000 between 1992 and 1996, which Professor Rubinstein considers his greatest success.

The ministry eased the workload for the matriculation period using a computer to choose three subjects which are omitted from the list of ten ten obligatory exams. If the goals were met, it would mean that "15,000 more high-school students will get their Bagrut every year, and this will produce an additional 10,000 students getting into universities and higher education every year - by the year 2000 . . .

"All of these additions represent the weaker segments in the Israeli population - both Jews and Arabs. All of this is aimed at opening the gates of the first degree to the underprivileged and to decrease the link between origin and scholastic achievement," he says.

This year 123,000 students attended university and the projected number by the year 2000 is more than 135,000.

Professor Rubinstein says the increased demand for higher education has been met by accrediting various types of college, called academic colleges. These include regional colleges, colleges financed by donations and tuition fees, technological colleges, teacher training colleges, and branches of foreign universities. In 1996, 28,000 students were registered in the academic colleges.

The government had chosen this policy rather than opening new universities because it was far cheaper.

"Universities are expensive and exclusive and have to be research-oriented. The academic colleges are either under the auspices of the universities or independent, under the vetoing system of the Council for Higher Education. And by law, their bachelors degree is equivalent to the degree given by the universities," says Professor Rubinstein.

However, until the education ministry's law regulating the academic colleges is passed, he admits that the situation is confused.

In the past few years, many types of colleges have opened, not all with the approval of the Council for Higher Education.

However, he said, the council has approved seven local "branches" offering foreign university degrees, including the universities of Bradford, Manchester and Coventry.

The expansion of the Open University has also contributed to cutting the number of Israelis travelling abroad. Professor Rubinstein says it has also created a better atmosphere around the whole issue of university admittance.

Following the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, questions were raised about the role of religiousuniversities such as Bar-Ilan, where Rabin's killer, Yigael Amir, studied law. Professor Rubinstein says: "Bar-Ilan was a bastion of the religious right. That doesn't mean the religious right is of the Yigael Amir brand. But within the religious right, there was this small segment, a dangerous seed of potential violence. Where there's a barrage of vilification calling the prime minister a traitor . . . What should a guy do who is susceptible to such allegations? Pulling the trigger was a consequence of this barrage."

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