Friday, 27 April 2007

The Pursuit of Excellence, and Doing As You're Told

Through an accident of domestic and European politics, some of the most promising private universities on Greek soil could be the ultimate losers of the liberalisation they have long sought. 

The domestic politics centre on George Papandreou. Under his leadership, the socialists have departed not once but twice from the reform process. Last year they walked out of crosspartisan discussions on how to reform public university law. They thus denuded the government of its only alliance in the face of unionists who swear to fight implementation tooth and nail. A few months ago Pasok ceremoniously announced its departure from constitutional reform, including amendments that would put private higher education on an equal footing with public - something Papandreou says he agrees should happen. 

The European politics are an admonition Greece has long expected. On April 19, the European Commission decided to refer Greece to the European Court for defaulting on an obligation to recognise degrees from other member states. The referral makes seven distinct charges, chief among them Greece's non-recognition of accredited European franchises, the overweening nature of boards that stand in judgement over degrees and their issuing institutions, and discrimination against European degree holders working in the public sector.

European Court decisions are notoriously slow, but the conservatives may act pre-emptively to avoid isolation in Brussels and preserve their reformist mantle from political moths at home. Were that to happen, a series of European franchises in this country would almost automatically issue publicly recognised degrees, whose holders would apply for government jobs. But that would leave American institutions beached as the only unrecognised providers of higher education.

Those include the American College of Thessaloniki and the American College of Greece. (The third member of that distinguished group, the American Farm School, now offers a Bachelor's degree from the University of Wales, and would gain from obedience to European directives.)

The American College of Thessaloniki was lured to Greece in 1923 by no less a statesman than Eleftherios Venizelos, with the words:

"We hope you will bring your good work to our country. We want American education, though I must say we cannot offer pecuniary support; we have too many requirements and too few resources in our Greek situation to do that, but we will give you any favors you want such as securing terrain, water supply, and exemption from customs duties, taxes, and the like. You had better locate in Saloniki; that's the best place for you; it's the most international."

Those words, recorded by their recipient, vice dean George White, now have no equivalent political sentiment.

The American College of Greece, also known as Deree, was founded in Athens in 1975 to service US overseas personnel. Given the anti-American political climate of the time, it is single-handedly credited with giving rise to article 16 of the constitution of that year, which determined that only public entities shall offer degrees recognised by the state. If America was going to support dictators and incursions onto Greek soil, at least the civil apparatus was going to be immune from them. Times change, however. Henry Kissinger is no longer running US foreign and security policy and Greece is back in Nato's military arm.

Undoubtedly, other US institutions would suffer discrimination too. Franchises and subsidiaries of institutions on American soil contribute to our underdeveloped higher education sector. They, too, allow thousands of Greek students the critical thinking and uninhibited bibliography their public university peers are denied.

But no franchise or fully-owned subsidiary can claim to have invested as heavily in education, and over as long a period, as the three American campus institutions. They have built libraries, student unions and sports facilities, becoming what would pass for fine liberal arts colleges in the US. In an environment of legal equality with Greek public universities, they would be in a position to expand enrolments and infrastructure.

As stand-alone colleges, Anatolia and Deree are independently accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, one of the most stringent US accreditation bodies, and not by extension, through association with a US campus.

Finally there is the spectre of mismanagement. The University of La Verne in Athens collapsed in 2004 through economic mismanagement and a heavy-handed response from its US sponsor, now the subject of a lawsuit. Another, the University of Indianapolis, skulks under a shadow of questionable enrolment practices. Campus colleges, representing investments that began in 1904, cannot afford such scandal and there are signs that they have begun to distance themselves from US franchises and subsidiaries.

Industry has long recognised the degrees of private universities here. It is only the state that holds them in abeyance; but really they are the victims of the low esteem in which Greeks hold politicians. When Greeks are polled on whether they agree with education reform in principle, a majority says yes. When polled on the merits of a particular proposal they often switch sides, either because a rabid opposition tells them to, or because they fear the motives of politicians, who must follow a venerable tradition of selling favours to individuals.

This opposition to changing article 16 has, inexplicably, infected George Papandreou, an Amherst College graduate who knows better, but suffers from a dizzying lack of resolve when dealing with the populists in his party. Pulling down the shutters on revision of article 16, Papandreou unconvincingly said it was not the principle of liberalisation he disagreed with but the wording of it. He promised to enact his own revision when he comes to power, trusting that the bipartisanship necessary to constitutional revisions will be granted him after he has begrudged it.

To be fair to Papandreou, he demonstrated bravery when he defied powerful voices in his party against revision; and New Democracy did much to bring partisanship upon itself when it inelegantly tried to manipulate a parliamentary committee into voting through a questionable amendment to article 24, which concerns the designation of forests. But Pasok is overreacting in abandoning the reform process in its entirety.

There are two ways out of the present hiatus, and only one of them is sensible; that is for New Democracy to work with Pasok behind the scenes to prepare a mutually agreed text for an amended article 16, which Papandreou could, if he is in opposition after the next election, survivably suggest to his MPs to vote in. The idea of compromise is perfectly reasonable because impasse ultimately makes both parties look bad, and the political process has already discredited itself too much in the sphere of education.

The not-so-sensible way out is for reputable American institutions to be baptised European. That legal sleight of hand would not only trample on an honourable transatlantic tradition that Europe could do with more of. It would be the clearest possible message to the country with eight of the world's top ten universities that we Greeks are not interested in long-term investment in charitable higher education, but only in the franchises that survive on fees; and it would render true the rantings of the left that we have only the political will to acquiesce, however reluctantly, to Brussels dictates that enforce the open market, but not the will to put into place policies that allow the pursuit of excellence.

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