Friday, 7 July 2006

Babiniotis Draws a Gun on Yannakou

 
Babiniotis' - and other academics' - general opposition to the government-proposed reforms even as a starting point for dialogue is what is most disheartening. Even the Greek-Cypriots, three-quarters of whom rejected the Annan Plan in 2004, at least agree to it as a basis for new talks
 
Tertiary education has continued to reign as the political world's main preoccupation, but with a decidedly new emphasis. Rather than pulling apart the government's reform proposals for universities, the opposition has focused its parliamentary fire on two related issues of the moment: How 38,000-odd students who failed to pass their university entry exams will be accommodated, and how far-flung towns will survive without the economic vitality brought by polytechnic departments the government now plans to consolidate.

In a sense the focus on the mundane is good for the government. It has steered the debate away from whether to revise article 16 of the constitution to allow private colleges. Unfortunately, it also seems to have emboldened Athens University rector George Babiniotis, who sets much of the tone of the debate among academics, to renege on his agreement to the individual points of reform he and the other rectors agreed to in a May 2 joint session with the National Council for Education (ESYP). Babiniotis issued a letter on July 4 asking for a new debate on a clean slate, and that prompted a hastily arranged rectors' conference two days later.

This is surprising because, essentially, the rectors had been on board with reform since early 2006, when they issued a reform blueprint of their own that closely resembled the ideas ESYP began to put forth on 19 December 2005. Whether they felt at the time that their heart was in it, or whether they were shamed into it by the powerful momentum for reform the government had built by broadcasting a consistent message, is hard to say. It is not encouraging, however, that they seemed to waver this week, following student protests and a sterile debate in parliament over how to accommodate those who did not pass their university entrance exams this year.

In fairness to Babiniotis, he has some perfectly rational things to say. Interviewed on Alpha television, he explained the need for university autonomy in fact (it exists on paper) on budget disbursement and student intake. "You can't assess me if I've planned to put 100 students in a certain department, and the state forces me to take 250," he said. It is true that state universities need to be liberalised even as state-controlled companies do. No rector in Europe would dream of asking the education minister for a counter-signature on procurements. But the counter-argument is that if universities are going to be autonomous they need to be transparent. The rectors have not yet suggested how the latter will be achieved.

Babiniotis' - and other academics' - general opposition to the government-proposed reforms even as a starting point for dialogue is what is most disheartening. Even the Greek-Cypriots, three-quarters of whom rejected the Annan plan in 2004, at least agree to it as a basis for new talks.

Babiniotis titled his letter calling for the new dialogue a "comprehensive proposal to resolve the university crisis through dialogue rather than piecemeal interventions". This is a grand claim for a three-page document to the government's 30-pages of draft articles for a new bill.

Babiniotis dangles tantalising short-term proposals such as retroactively altering university acceptance criteria to absorb many of the students left out this year, something Yannakou ruled out in parliament the following day as contradicting the law; or consolidating troubled polytechnics into universities, a cunning move polytechnics derided.
 
At the end of the day Babiniotis is putting forward talking points, not proposals, but he is mixing reasonable suggestions with attempts to extend university power as it now stands at the expense of reform. That is not progress, and it can only be hoped that the rectors will reject his call to abandon their commitment to the proposals they once espoused.

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