Friday, 28 July 2006

Universities in Crisis


Costas Moutzouris and the newly elected heads of the universities of Athens and Thessaloniki will formally assume their places among the rectors' council in September. They represent the new blood that could tip the body into a compromise with the government over education reform

A SELF-DESCRIBED conservative, the Athens Polytechnic's incoming rector strikes a moderate chord in the current education reform debate. 

"The main question is whether the government will press the issue [of reform]. Many people think that local and national elections will push this back," Moutzouris says, adding that "everyone agrees with the need for reform" among the Polytechnic faculty. 

Student protests have already pushed back a legislative deadline from June to October, the month of local elections. National elections could follow next year, even though they are not due until spring of 2008. 
Costas Moutzouris and the newly elected heads of the universities of Athens and Thessaloniki will formally assume their places among the rectors' council in September. They represent the new blood that could tip the body into a compromise with the government. 

"At the end of the day, the ministry might be convinced that none of the [proposed reforms] should take place. On the other hand it might say all of them are needed, and then some," he says enigmatically. 
Moutzouris, a civil engineer, doesn't unreservedly back the reforms, but neither does he take the position that a dialogue needs to start from scratch - a euphemism for throwing the reforms out. 

"There are lots of good things" in the proposals, he says, citing one that would change the electoral process he has just been through. The reformed law would allow students to vote individually, breaking a stranglehold by student unions patronised by national parties. 

Those unions are led by students with political aspirations, whom Moutzouris distastefully refers to as foititopateres (a term adapted from labour and best translated as student-bosses). 

Moutzouris also sees as a "foregone conclusion" the alteration of article 16 of the constitution to allow non-state universities to offer degrees Greece recognises. 

But he sees much of the outcry over the government's proposed amendments to law 1268, which governs higher education, as being besides the point. 

The major problem is that "we don't enforce the [existing] law", he says. With startling candour he lists three examples of corner-cutting in teaching standards.

"When the law says that a class requires 13 weeks of course study for a student to sit the exam, we sometimes circumvent that requirement. Either the teacher is away, or the student has missed the lesson to attend a union meeting. Normally, we ought to say the course wasn't taught."

Another example concerns faculty promotions. "We make exemptions on the qualifications required by law because a certain esprit de corps prevails." That same corporate spirit, Moutzouris says, "leads to new job descriptions being slanted to favour a particular candidate."

Such abuses bring him closer to the side of reform. He lambasts a proposal for greater autonomy floated by George Babiniotis, former Athens University rector and chief opponent of the government's reforms.
"Having autonomy is good, but you have to make good use of it," he says. "We have to improve the image of universities."

A new assessment law the government passed last year is forcing universities to conduct internal audits for academic standards and to have these verified by external assessors. The first full round of quality assurance controls will be completed at the end of 2008.

Moutzouris says the Polytechnic has been conducting assessments based on student reports for years, but that the results of it are buried. "Some professors get a good grade, some don't. We know who [they] are. What we don't do is make use of these conclusions. Measures are not taken to improve those who aren't good. We could do it, but we don't."

The culprit is that old corporate spirit again. "It's a mistake," Moutzouris says laconically.

Moutzouris is a spry 57. He speaks in pithy phrases and his diction is youthfully rounded at the edges to suit rapid delivery. He is most excited when demonstrating the harbour works laboratory that abuts his office - a hangar-sized concrete shell housing twin pools. Each contains a recreated coastal strip at one percent scale. Massive wavemaking machines simulate the effects of the sea on soil formations, enabling final year civil engineering students to adjust the design of proposed ports or beach bulwarks to minimise erosion. The facility, purported to have cost 2.9 million euros a decade ago, performs studies for commercial clients and generates revenue.

It is an example of what inadequately funded universities in Greece cannot do, Moutzouris says, referring to the "indiscriminate" number founded in recent years "with regional development, not education, in mind".
Such universities add to what Moutzouris sees as the over-arching problem in higher education: oversupply. "The big problem is that degrees no longer lead to jobs. Right now the Greek market receives 1,900 new civil engineers a year. Nine hundred are from Greek universities, and 1,000 mainly from the UK. That's what is chiefly on protesting students' minds: 'What are we going to do after we graduate?' That leads to the demotion of university degrees. They will become like high school diplomas."

Q&A

If you had to dismiss faculty for not meeting standards, would you be talking about 10 percent or 30 percent? 

In the Polytechnic we're talking about 10 percent. And even that's questionable because of tenure. In regional universities it might be 30 or 40 percent.

How big a part of the problem are perpetual students?

They should be left to the discretion of each university. The perpetuals I know have social or health or economic problems. The ones who stay as perpetuals are working in the public sector, they want to improve their position there so they think they'll get a Panteion degree as well.

Do you agree with the government proposal for a national booklist, which would replace the current system of a single set textbook per course, but not go as far as allowing unfettered choice of books from which professors could set required reading?

I think the book list is good. If a student has six or seven classes every semester and you let him read whatever he wants, he'll get lost at some point. The student needs a bit of paternalism.

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