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.

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