Friday, 30 June 2006

Pasok Needs Ideas; the Government Needs Backbone

By choosing to remove itself from the process, Pasok rejected dialogue. It is the height of hypocrisy now to call for it on a tabula rasa 

The government continues to fight for its education reform programme against demagoguery from the opposition and a public that seems not to know what it wants.

It may seem as though opposition in the form of partisanship and inertia could easily be scattered, especially when the potential gains from reform are great. It is just as well to remember that partisanship and inertia have helped shape this country for decades.

Demotic Greek was a political cause of the left since the late 19th century and did not prevail as the official language of education and government until 1975. Prime Minister Harilaos Trikoupis faced strong inertia to reforms that aimed to modernise teaching methods, increase the science curriculum and make the spoken Greek of the day the language of instruction as long ago as 1884. He was forced to withdraw altogether a proposal to charge school fees.

Politics and inertia are still alive and well. Pasok's shadow education minister Milena Apostolaki complained that the government never shared its interim proposals over several months of deliberations, but chose instead to leak them to the press. She invoked that slick political euphemism, dialogue.

We feel the need to remind Apostolaki that her party walked out of what started out as a cross-party discussion on education reform last year. By choosing to remove itself from the process, Pasok rejected dialogue. It is the height of hypocrisy now to call for it on a tabula rasa.

It is also highly doubtful what the benefits of dialogue would be. The government-appointed National Council for Education and the education ministry have both published detailed proposals. Pasok has published nothing.

The public seems as confused as Pasok seems futile. In a nationwide opinion poll carried out just before the government unveiled its latest proposals, two thirds of Greeks said that they are unhappy with the state of the university system. Nearly half believe in non-state universities. Yet half broadly disagreed with the proposed changes. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that half also confessed to being ignorant of them.

At the end of the day most public debates come down to money, not ideology. An Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development conference in Athens served as a reminder that Greece currently spends less than half the OECD average on education. In the current climate of privatisation, many Greeks are perhaps worried that the government is thinking of outsourcing education to the private sector.

Greeks are hard-wired against the private sector when it comes to institutions of social cohesion such as education and health. That is not necessarily a bad thing. The US has stubbornly resisted universal healthcare as a Trojan horse to capitalism, but its private sector is now discovering that health benefits are one of their fastest-growing costs and an increasing source of concern to workers. The private sector has also proven its inability to provide affordable metropolitan public transport in many capitalist economies across the world. Socialism and capitalism are clearly not opposed, but necessary to each other.

But the well-placed Greek faith in certain socialised services has pitted them implacably to establishing an interface between private and public sectors in education. In the area of finance, the government proposals do not go far enough.

Education Minister Marietta Yannakou has gone out of her way to deny any possibility of fees in state universities, for example. But the Greek bias against a co-payment on tertiary education is absurd for two reasons. First, Greeks know that the true cost of underinvestment in education has already been rolled over to them. According to the National Statistical Service, Greeks spent half as much again as the national budget on education in 2004 (2.5 billion euros and 5.9 billions euros, respectively). Just under 200 million euros of that was for tertiary education.

Greeks spend an even greater amount when they send their children to study abroad. More than 30,000 students are currently enrolled in universities in Britain and the US alone. Britain subsidises their courses, but deems their spending while living in the UK to be a greater return.

Second, public universities are conscious of their social responsibility to charge reasonable fees. In Britain, for instance, the annual undergraduate tuition for UK and European Union students was raised this year to 3,000 pounds. It is not negligible, but it is negotiable. Students unable to afford it have the option of a scholarship programme or a long-term student loan. Surely the qualitative difference between Athens University and London University is worth that cost. And education borrowing would make a very small addition to the 69 billion euros Greek households owed banks last year.

Greek public universities would also gain enormously from soliciting private endowments - something they could do with great success if the government agreed to make them tax-deductible as in the US. Libraries, scholarships and laboratories are massively expensive. Every public penny is spoken for, but there is much private wealth looking for a legacy.
It is far more difficult to adapt an outdated system than to build it to the needs of the age from scratch. Pasok and four fifths of the public are calling for dialogue and consensus. That is a siren song. The government cannot please those who are opposed to it for the sake of opposition; nor those who would water down change until it changed nothing; but it can sway the rational by staying on message

Friday, 23 June 2006

Diminishing Reform

Most damning to this country's intellectual future is Yannakou's decision to abandon the creation of borrowing libraries on campus. The current intellectual orthodoxy of one textbook per course, often written by the instructor, would be replaced not by open libraries but by a national booklis tfrom which students will choose

Education Minister Marietta Yannakou's latest proposals in education reform do not include her government's two most important propositions: Altering the constitution to allow non-state universities and introducing a system of quality assessment for higher education. Both now constitute government policy. The first will be debated in parliament this year, but the socialist opposition has already backed it and so it is expected to pass; the second is already under implementation. 

The proposals Yannakou unveiled on June 21, the only ones open to debate with the academic community, do, nonetheless, address four very important areas. There has been the inevitable watering-down of a fine set of original proposals by the Council for Higher Education (ESYP), which the government appointed. Unfortunately, at least two of those dilutions are consequential.

Term limits on students who fail their final exams are a must because of the asphyxiation of non-graduates (about half the student body) who seem at home with underachievement. Under Yannakou's comeback proposal, students may fail eight times rather than ESYP's proposed four before losing the right to re-sit. The retreat is a political sop, perhaps, but should this over-lenient system ever be called into use, it would imply a much greater problem in admissions than graduations.

Far more damning to this country's intellectual future is Yannakou's decision to abandon the creation of borrowing libraries on campus. The current intellectual orthodoxy of one textbook per course, often written by the instructor, would be replaced not by open libraries but by a national booklist from which students will choose, based on teacher recommendations.

If the idea of reading from one book is redolent of islamic madrassahs and current White House occupants, a national booklist is surely the worthy successor of Soviet canonism. There is only one rod of reason running through this invertebrate suggestion - namely that Yannakou is bound to pay for whatever books the students devour. Given that Greece spends only 3.7 percent of GDP on the education of the young (compared to the EU average of 5 percent and the vast amounts spent on social security for the old and not-so-old), Yannakou cannot be magnanimous.

Clearly, though, the state needs to abandon its avuncular guarantee to pay for all educational materials along with its constitutional monopoly on higher education. Such an arcane promise will surely not be tolerated by the rest of the European Union when, after 2010, Greece enters a common higher education atmosphere everyone must be able to breathe. More to the point, it is contrary to the idea of dialectic, debate and critical thought. If a student should have the gumption to cough up for a book not on Yannakou's national list, and if such a book should infect his thoughts, may a lecturer refuse to discuss its contents? That is certainly the implication.

Unhappily Yannakou has also dropped ESYP's proposal for a dedicated university ombudsman. The courts are awash with challenges to university faculty hires and student failures - often with good reason. An arbiter would add speed and authority to disputes that currently linger for years and become ingrained in people's lives. Rectors and lecturers may violently object to being second-guessed by another academic, but this is the way in the west.

The brighter aspects of Yannakou's proposals are a reasonable preservation of two ESYP proposals: To render university asylum less absolute by replacing unanimity with majority voting on its suspension; and to mitigate the student voice in the election of rectors.

Most western universities are oligarchic; they give students no voice in the choice of president, and faculty often enjoy only informal influence. A board of governors makes the appointment. This limited democracy works because the voters are all sophisticated, know how to read each other and have a common interest. Here, students have at least 40 percent of the vote. Their sophistication is arguable and their interests are currently dictated by the political party to whose union they belong. Their voting power rises at the expense of faculty when the latter fail to show up to vote, because students' voting power is fixed regardless of turnout. ESYP proposed applying turnout-related efficacy to the student vote as well. Students would have none of it, and Yannakou has now proposed extending the rigidity across the board.
A depressing 60 percent of Greeks polled by Metron Analysis for Eleftherotypia said they agreed with the student marches and 51 percent thought that Yannakou was handling the uprising badly. They might be chastened by the thought that even if every reform Yannakou proposes were to be implemented today and without further dilution, it would take years to improve the university system, and by the time it did so another wave of reform would be necessary.

Keros Mystery Cracked

ARCHAEOLOGISTS say they have discovered a 4,500-year-old ceremonial centre, the oldest ritual site in Greece. 

Excavations resumed for a few weeks this summer at Dhaskalio Kavos - Kavos for short - on the tiny island of Keros, after a lull of nearly 20 years. The problem with the site had been that it was disturbed by looters, who made a lucrative trade in the 1960s of the now famous minimalist Cycladic figurines. As a result, archaeologists could never be sure whether fragments of the Cycladic statuettes had been smashed in antiquity or more recently by smugglers.

That puzzle has now been solved by this year's excavation on an undisturbed patch of the site dating to 2,500BC.

"All the material found was already broken in fragments before it became buried in ancient times. Moreover, the rarity of joining pieces (as well as the different degree of weathering of the fragments) makes clear that they were broken elsewhere and that they were brought, already in fragmentary form," says an announcement from the team of Greek and British archaeologists who head the dig.

The puzzle of the broken fragments has come to be known as the "Keros enigma". The materials come from as far away as Naxos, Amorgos, Syros and probably mainland Greece, they say, making Dhaskalio Kavos "the first major ritual centre of Aegean prehistory".

Archaeologists, led by Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge, say they were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of finds. "The quantities of such material (fine pottery, marble objects) found at this site rivals the total of the finds excavated from all the known Cycladic cemeteries," the announcement says. They have ruled out the possibility that the site was a cemetery, because teeth would never turn up among the sherds.

They suggest that the rituals may have spanned enormous distances across the Aegean, and taken many days to complete. "The rituals involving breakage may have been initiated elsewhere, with the ritual deposition at Kavos on Keros forming the last phase in a more complex process."

Next summer's excavation is expected to reveal whether there was a sanctuary at Kavos and attempt to find a contemporary settlement on the nearby islet of Dhaskalio. Joining Colin Renfrew on the current dig are Neil Brodie (also from the University of Cambridge), Olga Philaniotou (Greek Archaeological Service) and George Gavalas.