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Behind the Headlines: Immigrant Influx Poses a Challenge for Israeli Universities, Institutes

April 27, 1992
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Recent immigrants have quickly made their mark on many aspects of Israeli life, from the sciences to music. In few places is their impact more discernible than in the country’s universities and science institutes, where researchers seek employment and students go to acclimate to their new country.

The universities must absorb into their faculties scientists and academicians whose expertise is concentrated in a handful of disciplines and woefully lacking in others, as well as students who require training in Hebrew language and other basic skills.

And in order to build the classrooms, labs and dormitories needed to accommodate the rapid growth, the universities must raise millions of dollars from private sources.

The sheer number of immigrants who need to be absorbed, combined with the students born during Israel’s baby boom of 1968-1973 who are now of university age, daunts even those overseeing the task.

Haifa University, in the north, and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in the south, are absorbing most of the new immigrant students.

Ben-Gurion is planning to double its population, which two years ago was 6,000 students, to 12,000 by 1996. Haifa University is expanding its student body by 80 percent, to 11,000, over the same time period, while increasing faculty by 60 percent and administrative staff by 30 percent.

The financial needs are great. Ben-Gurion President Avishay Braverman must raise $150 million over and above his annual operating budget to meet the task.

Half, he expects, will come from the government. The rest must be provided by donations from overseas.


The crush of new students “is creating a terrible headache, financially and in other ways,” said Roland Schild, Haifa University’s president. “It’s a challenge in physical development and to find the right faculty.”

According to Avner Yaniv, Haifa University’s vice president for administration, “the university has been thrust into an enormous expansion program. We’ll have so many more students in four years in the same number of buildings.”

The universities in Israel’s center, like the towns themselves, are already crowded. So, Tel Aviv University, Bar-Ilan University, the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Hebrew University are adding new immigrants to their campuses, but not in the same magnitude as the schools in the north and south.

At Tel Aviv University, for example, 10 percent of the 20,000 students were born in the Soviet Union, a proportion not expected to leap dramatically over the next few years.

When Israeli university officials talk about olim, they speak of Jews from the former Soviet Union, rather than Ethiopians, because emigres looking for positions are almost all Russians.

The Ethiopians “don’t opt for science and technology to begin with,” according to Zehev Tadmor, president of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. “Not many apply.”

There was a special program for Ethiopians at the Hebrew University after the Operation Moses immigration in 1985, “but they had great difficulty adapting to the Western system,” said Jerry Barash, a Hebrew University spokesman.

All of the universities and institutes offer immigrant students preparatory programs to allow them to get their language and study skills up to a competitive level.


At Bar-Ilan and Ben-Gurion universities, the mathematics and computer science departments have a special curriculum for Russian olim.

For the first year, the students are taught in Russian and receive Hebrew and English classes in addition to the regular courses. Once they pass their exams, they join the regular studies.

Ben-Gurion, which has natural science, social science, engineering and health faculties, is also starting a music department and a program in Russian literature to better accommodate the strengths of its new Russian emigre population.

And at Tel Aviv University, the music faculty “is exploding with students with major talents,” according to Itamar Rabinovich, the university’s rector.

The stress of absorbing the immigrants extends beyond administrators’ offices.

The difficulties faced by the new students, problems of “language, differences in orientation and emphasis, and of adjustment, forced us to invest in a counseling service we did not plan for,” said Haifa University President Schild.

And there is occasionally friction between the immigrants and veteran Israeli students.

The veteran Israelis are “not resistant to the new immigrants, but they feel the discomfort of crowdedness and shortages,” said Haifa Vice President Yaniv.

Most of the universities and institutes have hired at least a handful of recent immigrant faculty members.

And they have been able to temporarily hire many more researchers, because the salaries are mostly paid by the Ministry of Absorption.

Once the introductory year or two is up, however, and the universities are required to kick in more than 20 or 25 percent of the cost, most of these researchers will likely be laid off.

The Russian olim beyond student age who look to the universities for employment, especially in the sciences, are strong in subjects like mathematics, physics and aeronautics, and weak in computer science and biology.


The universities are handling the surplus of talent in two different ways: by creating “incubators” for scientists to develop their ideas into commercial viability and by retraining the olim in new fields.

Through the Technion, for example, 50 immigrant scientists are working in an incubator on projects from special glass technology to a chemical refining process.

Most of the universities try to retrain some scientists for other disciplines, if there is a need in somewhat related fields.

At Bar-Ilan, Hebrew University and Technion, Russian scientists are being retrained as high school math and science teachers. Hebrew University is retraining 30 olim to be social workers.

“They are such good learners that they are easy to switch,” said Chaim Harari, president of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot.

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