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.

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