Reform to boost English skills and lure foreign students

Israel’s Council for Higher Education (CHE) has approved a new reform aimed at significantly improving the level of English language skills among university and college students and attracting more international students.

As a result of this new reform, dozens of new English taught courses will be developed in Israeli universities and colleges and from the 2021-22 academic year all students starting undergraduate studies will take at least two courses in the English language.

To implement the reform, over the next five years all higher education institutions will adopt an English language studies and assessment approach involving studying the four language skills: reading, writing, comprehension and speech. This approach is based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

Professor Ido Perlman, deputy chair of the CHE, who led this initiative, said: “The Council for Higher Education views English language studies as being very important for academic and international purposes, as part of the provision of sufficient tools and knowledge to students during the course of their academic degree studies, as well as for their optimal integration into the local and international employment market after completing their studies.”

The courses that students take will be determined according to their level of English at the time of acceptance as a student. According to CHE, this requirement may include: preparatory courses for language study, content courses in the student’s discipline, electives, enrichment courses, lateral courses in English at the student’s institution.

Attracting more international students

In addition to increasing the English level of Israeli students, this initiative is intended to attract more international students as part of a plan to double their number in Israeli higher education under the Study in Israel programme. The reform will enable academic institutions to open English taught programmes that integrate students from around the world.

The CHE has allocated ILS435 million (US$126 million) until 2022 to increase the number of international students. This is intended to address the low share of international students, at 1.4% of the total student body, compared to 6% on average in OECD countries, and bring it up to between 3% and 6% by 2022.

The target, according to CHE, is to double the number of international students from 11,000 in 2017 to 24,000 in 2022. The focus will initially be on attracting students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, from North America, China and India.

However, a significant obstacle to international student recruitment – in addition to international perceptions of the security situation in Israel and some visa and work permit restrictions – is the fact that most courses at Israeli universities are only offered in Hebrew.

Senior members of CHE visited institutions in the United States last year to drum up interest in plans to increase the number of international students at Israeli universities and spread the word that Israeli higher education institutions were gearing up to cater for more international students by setting up programmes in English and providing registration forms in English.

The target of the move to strengthen internationalisation in higher education is to raise the number of international undergraduate students by 2022 from 1,933 (in 2017) to 2,500, international masters students from 1,462 to 3,000, international doctoral students from 791 to 1,265 and international post-doctoral students from 1,043 to 2,300.

Currently most international students are enrolled in short programmes such as summer courses and semesters abroad. The target is to raise their number from 6,000 in 2017 to 15,000 in 2022.

‘Internationalisation at home’

According to the Times of Israel, the attraction of more international students is seen as important to make Israeli institutions more competitive with universities internationally and to strengthen the country’s reputation for academic excellence.

Professor Yaffa Zilbershats, chair of CHE's Planning and Budgeting Committee, told The Times of Israel that the idea was to create “internationalisation at home”, enabling domestic students to experience a variety of cultures and ways of thinking.

But CHE also hopes it will act as a form of soft diplomacy, helping to fight international boycotts and increase diplomatic, social and economic ties with other countries.

Improving academic quality

The reform in English language studies followed from a report by CHE’s Quality Assessment Division, which drew on input from higher education institutions as well as the National Union of Israeli Students, examining how academic quality in higher education could be improved.

According to CHE, the division agreed that proficiency in English language skills is required to understand the background materials in courses that are part of academic studies as well as to facilitate the best possible integration of students into the workforce.

The initiative was coordinated with the Ministry of Education in order to ensure that Israeli students entering universities and colleges are prepared for the new format. The ministry committed to adopt the CEFR framework, in both English language studies and in matriculation exams.

CEFR is designed to provide a basis for the elaboration of language syllabuses and curriculum guidelines, the design of teaching and learning materials, and the assessment of foreign language proficiency and is used in Europe and across other continents.

The CHE and its Planning and Budgeting Committee will assist academic institutions in preparing for this initiative and recommends establishing systems to train English lecturers to teach the four required skills according to the CEFR, to train teachers to teach course content in English and to translate courses into English.

To ensure that all students are successful in this new programme, CHE also recommended that higher education institutions establish institutional systems to identify and assist students having trouble with English language studies.