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Relly Sa'ar | Ha'aretz | 27 November 2003
There's no politically correct spin to put on it, and the facts speak for themselves: As soon as Israel's top university administrators noticed that the big winners from admissions policy changes were not Jewish youngsters from low-income towns, but rather Arabs, they reverted back to the old admissions system.
This year, the universities instituted a policy change - the abandonment of psychometric aptitude tests as a requirement for admissions. However, once university officials realized that the main beneficiaries were Arabs, they decided to reinstate the exams.
During the upcoming academic year, university admission candidates will be judged according to the old system, which is based on a combination of high school matriculation exam results and the psychometric tests. By reinstating the old system, the universities apparently intend to guard against high enrollments of Arab students in selected departments.
One of the country's universities studied the results of this year's new admissions policies - candidates had to submit their results from various high school matriculation exams rather than take the aptitude tests. However, the university discovered that the new admissions system benefits Arab candidates. For example, the percentage of Arab students who were supposed to be accepted to the university's faculty of dental medicine under the new system was 52 percent; in the previous academic year, when psychometric results were part of the admissions policy, Arab students comprised just 29 percent of the first-year class. The same held true for the university's occupational therapy department: under the new admissions system, 56 percent of first-year students were to be Arabs; under last year's old admissions system, the figure was 19 percent.
To prevent a heavy influx of Arab students in fields such as dental medicine and occupational therapy, the university instituted what one department head described as "revisions" in its admissions policy. "We set the [minimum] entry age for studies at 20, instead of 18, and we also gave added weight to personal interviews with candidates," the department head said in describing the "revisions." The Arab candidates do not serve in the Israel Defense Forces, so the previous minimum entry age, 18, worked to their advantage, while increasing the importance of personal interviews worked to the disadvantage of Arab candidates, partly because the interviews are not conducted in their native language. As a result, the "revisions" helped the university departments maintain the same Jewish-Arab demographics that had been obtained in previous years.
The universities did little yesterday to conceal the fact that admissions policies are being altered to benefit Jewish candidates. "Admissions policies based on [high school] grades do not make studies more accessible to [Jewish] students from the periphery. The opposite is true," declared the committee of university heads. In its statement, the committee was careful not to use the words "Jews" and "Arabs," but its intention was clear. In a euphemistic idiom, it wrote: "since the number of places available in university enrollment has not risen, the acceptance of one population [that is, the Arab students, R.S.] nudges out another population [Jews, R.S.]"
Based on cold statistics, it remains unclear how this year's new admissions policy, which took into account matriculation exam results, unwittingly instituted an affirmative action program for Arab youth. For years, the Arab secondary school system has notched poor matriculation exam results due to chronic discrimination in budget fund allocations.
Two weeks ago, the heads of the universities worked out an arrangement with Education Minister Limor Livnat and Knesset Education and Culture Committee Chairman MK Ilan Shalgi (Shinui) whereby the system of considering matriculation exam results in lieu of psychometric exams is to be "suspended for one year" rather than be scrapped permanently. At the end of the current academic year, the universities are to submit to the Knesset committee empirical research studies that address the correlation between academic performance in higher education and psychometric exam or matriculation test success. Since the universities vehemently opposed adoption of the system used this year and claimed that psychometric exam results are the most reliable indicator of success in higher education settings, it can be expected that the research will point to the need for reinstating the psychometric tests as an important factor in admissions decisions.