PhDs abroad – The case of Arabs from Israel

The United States is the main country of destination for Arab academics from Israel who intend to obtain a PhD abroad, because the US grants Fulbright scholarships at the doctoral level in any field to students with academic excellence who are engaged in social activities and community service, and who have leadership abilities.

The Fulbright foundation has awarded scholarships and research grants to more than 1,300 Israeli academics, including Arab academics, since the establishment of the fund. Since 2007, the fund has allocated grants to eight to 10 Arab students from Israel each year intending to obtain higher degrees, especially PhDs.

Israel has eight universities that include about 5,800 senior lecturers and 2,334 lecturers with no tenure.

Each year, some 1,000 students complete PhDs in different fields, including a small number of Arab students. Between 2005 and 2008, the number of Arab PhD graduates was 126 compared to 3,714 Jewish PhD graduates.

The proportion of Arab lecturers in Israeli universities was only 1.4% in 2009, although this rises to 14% when including those at Arab colleges of teacher training. So the majority of Arab lectures with PhDs work in teacher training, most in Arabic but also in Jewish education colleges.

Arab students in Israel perceive higher education as an important stepping stone and sometimes the only means to advance their social mobility individually and as a group. There is no doubt that studying abroad is considered as a ‘second chance’ after non-acceptance to study in one’s homeland.

By studying abroad, Arab students from Israel have the opportunity to improve their academic, scientific and social status in Arab society in Israel. Studying for a PhD abroad means for them social prestige in traditional society and also helps their national minority in the goal of achieving full equality in all spheres of life in Israel.

Reasons for PhD study abroad

A study of Arabs in Israel who study abroad for PhD degrees adopted qualitative and quantitative research methodology to illuminate the reasons for doing so.

In terms of the quantitative findings, there are about 250 faculty members in the four Arab teacher training colleges holding a PhD who obtained their degrees from Israeli as well as from foreign universities.

We wanted to understand how migration to different – and for them new – cultural and national spaces with special characteristics affected Arab students from Israel. The PhD degrees were obtained from seven countries around the world, with the US and Germany making up approximately 63% of the countries of choice.

Despite difficult socioeconomic circumstances among Arabs in Israel, Arab families invest everything, even selling land, to finance higher education for their sons abroad.

The top three reasons are: prestige (a foreign PhD may be seen as well respected); insufficient GPA (that is, grades are insufficient for entry into Israeli universities); and scholarships (offered by the host university).

Other reasons for choosing to study abroad include the curriculum or culture (an individual is interested in getting exposed to a new culture and way of study), additional language, and an invitation from the host university. The availability of scholarships seems to be the main factor driving individuals to pursue a PhD in the US or Germany.

Despite the fact that the PhD studies were pursued outside Israel, 56% of those in Arab teaching colleges indicated that their dissertation did in fact relate to Arab society in Israel.

Such dissertations may have an advantage in that not only did the students have first-hand experience of Arab society in Israel, but they also got the opportunity to view it from an external perspective.

Incorporation of Western ideology, theories and practices is an integral part of the teaching experience at Arab teacher training colleges, and the majority of those who took part in the survey indicated that they preferred to combine Western and Eastern schools of thought.

Moreover, they highlighted the fact that the combination of the two offered maximum benefit to students and opened up doors to critical thinking rather than falling for stereotypes.

More than half of the lecturers said that they maintained an onging relationship with the state and university where they studied for a PhD, as well as relationships with the supervising professor of the thesis.

The overwhelming majority support studying abroad to obtain PhDs and advised others to travel abroad to get this title, to be exposed to and inculcated with other values from universities abroad, especially from the US and Western European countries.

Studying abroad and the interaction with a new cultural experience push Arab lecturers who obtained their PhD to combine Western and Eastern (most likely Muslim) doctrines and theories in their teaching at the teacher education colleges.

This combination of Western and Muslim thoughts is often beneficial to students at Arab training colleges because it opens the doors for them to be critical thinkers and keeps them away from stereotypes and prejudices.

But despite all the advantages of studying for a PhD abroad, the title is no guarantee of an academic card for entry to Israeli universities. Rather, in many cases it is an entry card to unemployment.

Nevertheless, Gameel, who obtained a PhD from Princeton University, said: “It is an entire experience. The expectations of the students are high; the relationship with the teachers is on an equal basis and you don’t get the feeling the teacher is doing you a favour or behaving in a superior or snobbish way.

“The learning experience is independent and there is no limit to what one can achieve, other than the limitation one imposes on oneself. Studying in the US empowers the students, directs them and allows them to be creative.”

* Dr Kussai Haj Yehia is a senior lecturer at the Academic College of Beit Berl in Israel. Beit Berl college is a multidisciplinary academic institution where Jews and Arabs study side by side and where education is considered a means for effecting social change and advancing social justice.

* This article is an edited version of a paper that Dr Yehia gave last year at an international conference on knowledge crossing borders at West Chester University in Britain. His most recent publication deals with the Jordanisation of Higher Education among Arabs in Israel.