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Israeli Colleges Thrive as Overseas Students Seek New Venues

The 'big four' foreign student destinations are in decline - and colleges and universities in Israel are thriving
Illustrative photo of a college graduation ceremony. (photo credit: CC BY John Walker/Flickr)
Illustrative photo of a college graduation ceremony. (photo credit: CC BY John Walker/Flickr)

Going abroad to study during college is something of an international tradition.  For centuries, students migrated to the great centers of learning in Europe and the United States to both benefit from the top quality education available and take the unique opportunity to see the world while still unfettered by family and career.  And that tradition is still going strong.  By 2012, more than four million people worldwide traveled abroad to study.

The Decline of the Big Four

There has been, however, a shifting trend in recent years in terms of precisely where those millions of students are travelling to learn.  Historically, three host countries have been dominant in overseas study — the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.  A more recent addition, Australia, also became a major destination during the 20th century, rounding out what are today known as the “Big Four” of international education.

But as data gathered by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics shows, the Big Four are no longer keeping pace with up and coming destinations.  While amongst OECD countries there was an average increase of 15% in 2 years in the number of overseas students coming to study, the Big Four barely saw any increases at all – even in nominal terms.  The total number of foreign students studying in the US rose a paltry 8% from 2010 to 2012, while the UK did little better, with a rise of only 9%.  France did even worse, with a mere 4% increase, and Australia actually saw a decline of 1%.

New College Hotspots

While the Big Four saw little to no growth in the number of incoming students, a number of new hotspots saw massive increases.  Former Communist Bloc states like Poland and Estonia enjoyed significant gains, in two cases, 28% a piece from over the same 2 year time period.  China gained 24% and Iceland went up by one third.  The biggest increases, however, were in The Netherlands, Portugal, Israel, and Turkey, which rose by 103%, 67%, 56%, and 49% respectively.

So what’s causing the changes in destinations?  Part of the shift simply has to do with increased demand.  In the space of just 2 years, the number of overseas students doubled, from two to four million.  As more students enter the global education marketplace, supply shifts to accommodate this growth in demand.

When we examine the data in-depth, the rising Third World demand hypothesis works well in some cases.  In Portugal, for instance, much of its 67% rise is clearly driven by increases from developing countries which hitherto did not send many students abroad.  Nearly two thirds of the overseas students its hosts are from former Portuguese colonies — places like Brazil, Angola, Cabo Verde, and Mozambique.  These students are native Portuguese speakers and naturally are drawn to Portugal.

The Netherlands offers and odd case, however, resulting largely from its proximity to Germany and the growing disparity in tuition between the two countries.  Its dramatic increase in foreign students appears impressive at first — 103% from 2010 to 2012.  But upon closer inspection, the bulk of that growth comes from next door Germany and is the result in a shift among German students away from Austria and towards The Netherlands.  Border area colleges have been so inundated by German students seeking cheaper tuition that many Dutch schools are now primarily German-language.  Nearly half of all foreign students in the Netherlands are German.  And just as The Netherlands has seen an increase thanks to the wave of German students, Austria has suffered a dramatic decline of 15%, the third worst in the OECD.

Westerners Fuel Israeli Education’s Rise

There’s something unique about the rise in Israel, however.  Its 56% surge from 2010 to 2012 is markedly different from the massive increases seen in Portugal and The Netherlands.  Unlike Portugal, Israel has no former colonies or other Hebrew-speaking countries to receive students from.  And unlike European Union neighbor states, Israel has minimal incoming students from the Arab states along its borders.

Intriguingly, Israel has actually managed to draw large numbers of Westerners — particularly Americans — to its shores to learn.  Even more impressive is the fact that the dramatic growth in international study in Israel has also come mostly from the West.  Fully one-third of overseas students in Israel were Americans, making them by far the largest group studying in the Jewish State.  And most of the remainder came from other OECD countries, with France, Canada, South Korea, Germany, Italy, and the UK leading the pack.

Why Israel?

This begs the question: why is Israel drawing American students faster than anywhere else?  In some ways, Israel is an ideal alternative to traditional overseas destinations in Europe.  It’s home to some of the world’s highest ranked universities, like Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Technion Institute of Technology, yet is generally far more affordable both in terms of tuition and living expenses than competing schools in the US and Europe.  The country has a mild, Mediterranean climate and English is widely spoken.

study abroad Israel

Until recently, however, Americans looking to study abroad had few options in Israel.  But in the past few years, Israeli schools have become more oriented to overseas students, opening dedicated international programs taught in English.  Some, like the Technion’s
“Azrieli Start-uP MBA” program,highlight Israel’s unique strengths – in this case, Israel’s dominance in technology innovation and the start-up world, or the Hebrew University’s MA in Jewish Education, which is taught 1-year via distance learning with six weeks in Jerusalem, making it the only Masters in Jewish Education with ‘Israel Inside’.

As international partnerships between Israeli and American colleges increase, the rising tide of overseas education in Israel shows no signs of slowing.  With a wide variety of new international programs opening in Israel — ranging from law to nutritional science to education – some observers are wondering; is this shift towards Israeli colleges a sign of things to come?


About the Author
Shlomo Lifshitz is the founder and CEO of Lirom Global Education (Study in Israel LLC) and hopes to fulfill the vision of making Israel a center of global education by bringing oversea students to study abroad in Israel, the Start-Up Nation. In his past, he founded and ran Oranim Educational Initiatives for 25 years bringing almost 150,000 young people to various trips to Israel.
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