The average population age in Palestine is very young – seven out of ten Palestinians are younger than 29 years of age – and education participation is high. Palestinians attach great value to education and this cannot be viewed separately from the situation after 1948. As a result, on average, Palestinians are the highest educated population group in the Arab world.
In principle, Palestinian youths complete four stadia in their education: upon reaching the age of four, a child goes to infant school for two years. This is followed by ten years of primary school. Compulsory school attendance is limited to these ten years (i.e. up till the age of fifteen). After primary school there is the possibility to attend a secondary school for two years. Based upon a pupil’s marks in his final primary school report, pupils are divided into three categories: those with the highest marks are prepared for an education in the exact sciences; those with lower grades are prepared for an education learning languages or in social sciences; the others are prepared for a technical and vocational training. National exams are taken at the end of secondary school (al-tawjihi, literally ‘orientation’).
The Tawjihi grade
Besides subjects chosen, the average tawjihi grade also determines the field of study that a student is admitted to at university (with medicine as the highest education). Sometimes school pupils stay down a year and retake their final exams despite having passed, if they have underachieved on their tawjihi exams for some unforeseen reason, and are thus limited in their choice of study.
The exact conditions for admission to a field of study are determined each year depending on the number of students; this means that the selection criteria are modified slightly each year. A Bachelor degree takes four years of study, a master degree another two. A technical and vocational training takes four years.
The education in Palestine is divided into three types of school systems: state schools, private (denominational) schools linked to one of the church communities and – exclusively for refugees – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) schools. Of the three types, the education at the private schools has the highest ratings.
The number of pupils is very large because of the rapid growth of the Palestinian population. This has caused logistical problems and has put a strain on the quality of education. The average length of time spent at school or university is increasing; as a result, participation in secondary, technical and university education has risen. It is noteworthy that more girls and women enter into secondary and university education than boys and men, both in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Today, there are twelve universities and polytechnics in the West Bank, and eight in the Gaza Strip. The largest is the Islamic University of Gaza, with 20,000 students, followed by al-Najah University in Nablus and the Bethlehem University. Well known in Western Europe is the Birzeit University (in the vicinity of Ramallah). The Open University is the largest academic institution, with twice as many students as the Islamic University of Gaza.
The various educational institutions annually deliver large numbers of graduates. To an important degree as a result of the negative economic effects of the Israeli occupation, there are little or no employment opportunities for many of them, especially for those lacking the right connections. On average, it takes a graduate two years to find employment; 25 percent has still not found fitting employment after five years. For women, the figures are even more unfavourable than for men. By incorporating more practical knowledge and skills in the study programs, universities are trying to improve the access to the labour market. Were the universities not to, they would run the risk of becoming educational centres for Palestinian emigrants.
Universities and polytechnics – like all other fields of Palestinian society – have come under huge strain as a result of the Israeli occupation. Not only has Israel tried to control the curriculum’s content, the Israeli occupying forces also shut down various educational institutions for long periods of time (up to three years) after the outbreak of the First Intifada. Both student (most of whom still live with their parents) and staff mobility have been drastically hampered because of checkpoints and curfews. As a result, teachers have started lecturing in their homes.