Friday, 27 August 2010

The education spiral

The following three paragraphs are from a July 15 Economist article on Egyptian education:

"Before the revolution Egypt’s schools and universities were few but their standard was excellent. The push to boost numbers came at the cost of a drastic fall in quality. Instead of following tested Western models, school textbooks were rewritten to emphasise “nationalist values”, scientific formulas and lists of facts rather than critical thinking. By the 1980s class sizes in government schools averaged more than 60. With student numbers in several big state universities up to six-digit figures, hundreds, even thousands of students were packed into lecture halls. Some of the better staff emigrated to Gulf countries, where salaries were many times higher.

Those left behind began to exploit an obvious market opportunity, offering private lessons on the side. This practice became so pervasive that by 2005 some 64% of urban students and 54% of rural ones resorted to private crammers in addition to regular schooling, according to Egypt’s Human Development Report. A 2002 World Bank study found that private tuition accounted for fully 1.6% of GDP, and other studies suggest it devours a whopping 20% of household spending in families with school-age children. A big reason why families are willing to spend so much is that the education system relies heavily on national exams, not only for rating students but also for placing them in the various faculties of the state universities that still account for 95% of college enrolment.

Since the 1960s these have been ranked by prestige, with medicine and engineering accepting only the highest-scoring students. The humanities, including law and education, are left with the dross. In effect, this creates a tyranny of exams largely based on rote learning. It forces unhappy students into disciplines they would not have chosen for themselves and produces a chronic imbalance between the skills of graduates and the needs of the marketplace. Egypt has a surplus of would-be lawyers, slapdash engineers and scarcely numerate accountants but few trained librarians, architects or actuaries."

The similarities with Greece's education system should be obvious, and worrying. There is the tyranny of after-school frontisteria, which sap household incomes and belabour students. There is the rote learning and lack of critical thought seen in Greek high schools and universities. There is the vast class size. There is the cascading placement system, which puts university entrants in disciplines not of their choosing. All these are the hallmarks of a centrally controlled, politicised education system that does not tend towards excellence.

This year the socialist government enormously broadened the university intake by abolishing the 50% pass grade established by former education minister Marietta Yiannakou in 2006. There are good reasons for this. Greece is in recession (the economy contracted by 3.5 percent in the second quarter, year-on-year, according to Bank of Greece figures released this week), and putting young people in study for four years (the minimum duration of a Greek Bachelor's degree) is a way of keeping unemployment figures a bit lower than they might otherwise be (officially they are topping 12.5 percent).

A similar broadening is happening elsewhere. In Britain, for instance, the number of students eligible for 'clearing' - late placement in courses that were not a student's first choice - is up by 48,000 this year to 182,000. But in the effort to place as many applicants as possible, the Greek system has plumbed new depths. The lowest-achieving entrants to the university system scored 2.3 out of 20, and to technical colleges 0.9 out of 20.

The dilemma for the public higher education system is therefore starker than ever. Are they a political instrument fulfilling a constitutional pledge to provide free higher education or are they competitive institutions improving Greek society and its economy with every passing generation? Will Greece's universities remain politically controlled, their intake dictated by government quotas, or will they be released from the state and allowed to compete with the rest of the world? There are concomitants to that state control. If the university system is not allowed to be more autonomous and accountable, it will be difficult for it to acquire transparent academic and financial management, because academic and administrative appointments come with party political backing - as do some student transfers.

Public education should not serve the interests of whichever political party is in power. The current socialist policy of broadening the intake is understandable in the interest of social stability in a recession, but ultimately an enlightened government must plot a course of radical reform and face the unions and other deeply vested interests that will fight it, even though their students will be used as hostages.

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