Friday, 27 January 2006

Cockroaches on the High Table of Education

The most important of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis' proposed constitutional amendments is that of liberalising the higher education sector. A constitutional review would be worthwhile for that reason alone, because a country's system of education is its investment in the next generation. Whatever goes wrong there undermines the nation's future. 

Liberalisation necessarily brings accreditation. Greece is still the only European Union member with neither, but a terminus ante quem looms in 2010. That is when the EU hopes to adopt common standards for education that will facilitate cooperation between universities and establish equivalence between degrees.  Greece is now creating a system of external assessment, which yields its first results at the end of 2008.

2010 seems far off in a Europe where British Bachelors degrees last three years and German ones five. But it seems particularly far off from the Greek point of view. The problems in our 19 universities and polytechnics and 17 technical universities go beyond disputes over course lengths and other quality assessment criteria.
Start with the numbers: Active students in the university system for the 2001-2002 academic year, the last for which the figure is available, numbered 163,000. Students who had overrun their degree course by more than a two-year grace period and still did not graduate numbered no fewer than 118,000 - almost half the student body, with the right to attend lectures and classes, claim free textbooks and library space. 
Perennial students, as they have come to be known, are going to be a statistical drag when it comes to assessment, and it should be reasonably expected that universities will follow the recommendation of the National Council for Education and set tolerance limits. 

But the perennials do even more harm. They become agents of the major parties in an unhealthy politicisation of the student body, which casts 40 percent of the vote for university presidents. This vote is cast not by each student individually, but by the electors of the socialists, conservatives and communists in proportion to their standing in student elections. Party politics also prompt students and teachers to strike, throwing a spanner in the academic year and swelling the ranks of those who never graduate. Thus politics invade the halls of learning, and what we teach our students is the right to partisanship rather than individuality. 

The role of politics is historic. University professors were deemed public servants in the 1952 constitution, three years after the end of the Civil War, in order to bar communists. The pendulum swung the other way in the 1975 constitution we still have today. Universities were then declared exclusively a public province in order to bar the US, which had supported the junta, from issuing recognised degrees from its three universities on Greek soil.

Lecturers also misbehave. A large number teaches by proxy, while taking a second job in the private sector. There are no official complaints because the students who would generate these would stand to suffer academically.

The university system is so underfunded (Greece spends just 3.7 percent of its GDP on education, compared to the EU average of five percent), that it faces severe material and academic handicaps. The student-teacher ratio is often inordinately high. Libraries, a major criterion of quality assurance, are paltry and out-of-date. This conspires with a lack of pluralism in textbooks (many teachers assign only their own books) to create a lack of critical or dialectic thought, which is what tertiary education, at least as the Athenians of the fifth century BC invented it, is all about. A lack of cash similarly creates a shortage of facilities like laboratories, internet terminals and recreational space. Research is at a minimum, and private sector money seems seldom to be courted.

All these problems have gone unchecked because the internal assessment each university is supposed to exercise with objectivity is compromised. In what is definitive of closed systems, no-one is able or willing to puncture the sphere of consensus from the inside. In fact, allowing the situation to continue can create the illusion that things are not really that bad. Such is the wilful and self-congratulatory ignorance among some academics, that when the Karamanlis administration announced external assessment a few deans suggested that they appoint the assessors. The inspired thought of these gentlemen was evidently that a perpetual motion machine keeps going as long as it defines what motion is.

The university system is said to have shied away from assessment once before, during the conservative administration of Konstantine Mitsotakis (1990-93) when George Souflias was education minister. The American College of Greece approached Souflias to establish an interface of some sort between the private and state universities, so that degrees generated by the former could acquire state recognition. Evaluating a degree requires an assessment. The plan foundered when it became apparent that the public universities would not stand for the assessment process.

Can a liberalised system of higher education fare better than the closed, public system in Greece? in healthcare, another financially intensive and socially important sector, private hospitals have, over twenty years, clawed enormous market share and created an export industry. The sale of the country's leading private hospital for 54 million euros last week underlines the sector's prospects. Can education do the same?

Quality will be key. Karamanlis was careful to say that non-state universities would be non-profit. That allows the government a control lever, since charitable status can only be given by presidential decree. But the law governing charitable foundations is aloof. It demands that transactions be perfunctorily recorded in a division of the finance ministry, but there are no other reporting obligations. This would clearly be unsatisfactory in a university, which ought to publish an annual report and be assessed both financially and academically. The existing legislation, for instance, would do nothing to change the indifference with which the state watched the University of La Verne in Athens collapse due to financial mismanagement in September 2004, leaving 700 students with partial degrees and 100 teachers without work. Karamanlis is right to demand charitable status in order to prevent an explosion of establishments that would be little more than frondistiria - something existing private colleges will surely want to avoid, too. Tax-exemption is also necessary to a university's viability. But new legislation will be required in addition to the constitutional amendment.

In time, the dozen-odd private colleges that now exist in Greece (we survey the biggest for the first time in our Paideia supplement this week) may also find the investment capital to blossom into charitable foundations and offer degrees recognised by the state. If even a few of them become campus universities that attract overseas students, we will have the basis of a system capable of boosting the economy, quelling party politics and raising the bar of Greek higher education by constantly teaching above the average, shaming state universities into doing the same. The Greeks, who are traditionally above-average achievers abroad, will then have a system that invests in them at home.

Friday, 20 January 2006

Constitutional Change

Pasok bemoans New Democracy's neglect of its de jure rights to dismiss state employees,but itself never had the political guts to fire economically significant numbers of people from the civil service or public enterprises

A round of constitutional amendments is not objectionable, and even desirable, but the sudden manner in which they have been announced lends credence to the theory that they are at least partly a means for the prime minister to deflect and deflate intra-governmental and intra-party disagreements. 

When Costas Simitis undertook constitutional amendments they were announced months in advance. Those of Karamanlis have just been announced for early March. The concern, therefore, is that they will be undertaken quickly, and without much debate. If that happens, opportunities could be lost.

An important opportunity is already being lost, and by design. Karamanlis announced 17 amendment proposals (plus three vague directions in which efforts at transparency ought to be aimed). Nowhere in that list is separation of church and state to be found. The government clarified that church-state relations would not be touched through Education Minister Marietta Yannakou, in response to a question from Left Coalition leader Alekos Alavanos year ago. Yet the European Union is founded on the basis of secularity, and sooner or later the vast cultural assumption that Greeks want their governments sworn in by priests will have to be challenged.

There are positive proposals. New Democracy is showing consistency in its efforts to erode lifelong tenure in the public sector by seeking to enshrine this in an amendment. It would be the apex of a series of initiatives that began last year. 
Tenure is an anachronism from the early decades of the twentieth century when incoming governments summarily replaced civil servants appointed by their political foes with their own clients.

The thirty-odd labour agreements that circumscribe management-employee relationships in public companies do make allowances for dismissal on the grounds of incompetence or malice, but for political reasons management has seldom called upon these clauses to dismiss employees. It has preferred, instead, to shift the ornery or incompetent to harmless positions in the company. Meanwhile, political parties have continued to stuff the public sector to the point of suffocating finance ministers with its payroll.

New Democracy made an astounding admission in May last year: By buying its way out of the public tenure system in a pilot project agreed with the union of telecommunications workers at OTE, it implied acceptance of tenure as fact. Pasok, which has done so much to establish that fact, bemoaned New Democracy's neglect of its de jure rights of dismissal, and continues to hold this official stance now; but Pasok itself never had the political guts to fire economically significant numbers of people from the civil service or public enterprises.

New Democracy followed up the OTE deal with a law, published last December, abolishing tenure in future hires by public companies and instituting private sector labour agreements. A recent opinion poll showed support for the reining in of the public sector. On January 18, the government decided to give below-inflation raises in 2006, and cap management salaries at 5,000 euros (see article on page 23). A constitutional amendment now would be designed to give irreversibility to these political and legislative initiatives.

Another clearly positive proposal is to allow competition in higher education from the private sector and from abroad on an equal footing with the public sector - in other words, the establishment of universities that will offer degrees recognised by the state. Article 16 of the constitution currently excludes anyone but the state from the business of higher education. The state, in turn, has for too long held degree recognition exclusively for its own graduates in an effort to restrict public sector jobs as spoils to the 'winners' of the Greek education system. The trouble is that that system has basked in its own untouchability, allowing university standards to drop. It needs the competition on Greek soil that a liberalised education sector would offer.

But most of Karamanlis' proposals are too vague to weigh up at this point. They broadly aim at laudable goals, but reaching those goals can be a complicated matter. For instance, will the establishment of a Constitutional Court serve to strengthen the compliance of laws with the constitution, or will it emasculate Greece's other top courts without offering much in return? Is it more democratic to allow parties to appoint up to thirty MPs who have not been directly elected? In theory this is meant to offer seats to those not wealthy enough to mount their own campaigns, but such seats have not, recently, gone to the poor. Extending the practice arguably strengthens parties and narrows the field for individuals. 
Costas Karamanlis may have bought himself a few days of peace during which to conduct a state visit China, and even potentially deflected the energies of his party and the public from painful economic reforms for the coming months; sooner or later, however, he must refine his constitutional proposals into some shape - and preferably not a boomerang.

Friday, 13 January 2006

Markoyannakis In His Own Words

Former deputy public order minister Christos Markoyannakis granted the Athens News an exclusive interview on the day of his resignation. 

Mr Markoyannakis, are the statements attributed to you in the newspaper Dimokratis ton Chanion correct?
Yes, probably so.

The journalist who taped you claimed that you approved of the comments being made public.

Could it be possible? That is completely fantastic. Unfortunately, this kid has a very low IQ and very limited ability to resist - he's very vulnerable to promises. He's been promised he's going to be made a big journalist and it's gone to his head. The exact opposite happened. When I realised he had come into the room - I knew him, having taken him into my political office for a couple of months before the [2004] elections - he came up to me and asked, 'Mr Christos, are the things you said printable?' I said that if I am going to say anything about anyone I'll do it on camera. And to compensate him I even gave him a brief interview on painless matters. I forbade [the use of the statement about prosecutor Linos] categorically.

There is, nonetheless, friction between you and Mr Linos. It is he, after all, who ordered the prosecutorial probe into the alleged suicide of an escaped Russian prisoner, and also into the alleged abductions of Pakistanis by police. Didn't that anger you?

Listen, I never got involved with these matters. I was annoyed by certain actions of Mr Linos' that ran counter to due legal process and were inexcusable for a supreme court prosecutor. I'll give you a couple of examples. Despite the fact that there was an automatic investigation underway into the death of the Russian, which is a step beyond a preliminary investigation, he ordered the same prosecutor to conduct a preliminary investigation. This was pure stupidity... Whenever there is a death, accidental or otherwise, police begin an investigation without the prosecutor ordering it, but a prosecutor takes the lead in that investigation. This happened in the case of the Russian. But Mr Linos succumbed to the nonsense that some TV networks were spewing about the police not doing their job properly, and ordered a preliminary investigation. That is something lower than an investigation. In an investigation you have the power to do real research and order autopsies. Most important of all, the testimony you take down is on the legal record, while in the preliminary investigation testimony goes into the case file and doesn't get used [in court].

Another example is that he ordered the exhumation of a soldier, who is meant to have committed suicide but whose relatives claimed he had not. He had no right to do so, because the military has its own prosecutorial service which is answerable not to the supreme court but directly to the defence minister.

Who made up the closed circle to which you made the comments about Dimitris Linos?

It was made up of seven or eight of my personal friends and we were in a closed room at the Kastelli offices of New Democracy. I was on a trip to hear what favours people wanted, to put it bluntly.

Did you ever have the chance to apologise rather than resign?

I wouldn't want to apologise. Mr Linos exercises his duties negligently in many cases. My only self-criticism is that I should have been milder in my expressions.

Can't the deputy public order minister have an open disagreement with a prosecutor? Why is that politically unacceptable?

Journalists made it sound as though I had made a public announcement, when this was not the case. It was clearly a case of my receiving some friends to hear their problems and their complaints. They came in one by one. At some point there was a handful left. I said to them, 'Let's sit down and cut the [New Year's] pitta.' We shut the door so as not to be heard by curious folks from other political parties, and that's when everything took place.

During your resignation today you said that you spent four hours at the minister's house. Did you speak to the prime minister?

No, only Mr Voulgarakis did.

Can you tell us what was discussed?
I can't.

The Real Public Order dangers

If the cabinet's retention record is a poor one, it is partly because Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has stuck to his promise of maintaining a squeaky clean government - at least in terms of appearances. This ought to be appreciated after the experience of past Pasok administrations, whose abilityto carry ministers through indications of malfeasance gave the impression of institutionalised corruption

The conservative government suffered its fourth high-profile loss with the resignation last week of Christos Markoyannakis. An agriculture minister, deputy finance minister and member of parliament have already been shed. 

Pasok and the opposition press have sounded triumphant about this rate of attrition, suggesting incompetence or lack of political smarts.

It is also true that the conservatives, out of power for over two decades, have committed a series of blunders. Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos, for instance, revoked a law banning media owners from state contracts because Brussels said it obstructed free trade. Finance Minister George Alogoskoufis also invited criticism from the European Union when he revised socialist budget deficits - not once but twice. The prime minister himself damaged our most valuable foreign relationships - those with fellow Europeans and the US - when he distanced himself from a Greek commitment to try to reunify Cyprus before it acceded to the EU.

These are policy errors at the highest level, to which can be added an ineptitude in communication and image-building. They have rightly drawn severe criticism.

If the cabinet's retention record is a poor one, however, it is partly because Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has stuck to his promise of maintaining a squeaky clean government - at least in terms of appearances. This ought to be appreciated after the experience of past Pasok administrations, whose ability to carry ministers through indications of malfeasance gave the impression of institutionalised corruption and made Greeks cynical about the ability of democracy to represent them. Karamanlis has made a stylistic choice that, if anything, errs on the side of virtue. For Pasok to gloat over a verbal indiscretion committed by an otherwise competent deputy minister is at the very least in bad taste.

What ought to attract our attention in the public order sphere is the reality, admitted to by Public Order Minister George Voulgarakis in parliament, that thousands of Pakistani immigrants are being reined in for questioning as part of an international counter-terrorism effort. Most of those interviews are probably done accordance with the law. Some, however, have allegedly been violent and abusive, a matter still under investigation. Allegations by a handful of Pakistanis that they were abducted from their homes and held against their will have given rise to fears that foreign intelligence services may be active on Greek soil, possibly with Greek consent. Greece has no known agreements with foreign powers governing what foreign intelligence agents may or may not do on Greek soil. Voulgarakis says no such secret agreement exists either. Their presence here would therefore be all the more unaccountable for.

Greece may legitimately carry out operations in collaboration with countries like the US, with which it has a mutual legal assistance treaty. Such operations are carried out by Greek police, under the direction of a prosecutor. Agents from the collaborating country's internal bureau, such as the FBI and Scotland Yard, may observe and submit questions for interviewees. Such an operation would yield judicially usable evidence. But an operation carried out by a spy service would not yield anything usable in court.
It is right that authorities should do everything legally sanctionable to ensure that Greece plays its part in a European-wide evidence-gathering machine. In an age of global terrorism, law-enforcement also needs supra-national tools; but the gathering of evidence must be done in accordance with national and international law and be ordered by a prosecutor, not police or secret services.