Monday, 18 April 2011

Back Door Reform: Why Greece's Approach to Non-state University Education is Folly

Even before Greece fell into recession, the reform of its education system was an intellectually urgent issue. Now that Greece’s lack of competitiveness presents itself with existential urgency, education reform can no longer be ignored as a major lever of social re-engineering and national development. The question is, will the socialist government of Yiorgos Papandreou clasp that lever and pull hard? The answer seems to be that it lacks the courage and commitment to do so.

The platform of promises that carried Papandreou to power a year ago overbrims with progressive, reformist intentions. Practically every sector of the economy would be remade. Politics would become transparent, governance efficient and accountable. These policy goals were ambitious and hit the mark. On education reform alone, Pasok’s programme was unprescriptive. Was it possible that Papandreou would reform every major policy area except education? 

The reason for silence was that Papandreou had felt his hand forced in strangling worthwhile education reforms as opposition leader. Those had begun promisingly enough in 2005, when conservative education minister Marietta Yannakou created the National Council for Education, a think tank to advise the government, and put Thanos Veremis at its head. As a Greek political historian with international credentials, sound judgment and impeccable friends, Veremis and his committee delivered many of the reform proposals Greece needed. On the basis of these Yannakou set about a three-pronged reform. In that year, with bipartisan support, she passed into law the process of external assessment of Greek universities. They had hitherto assessed themselves, but would not qualify for European Union funding without the additional step.  

Yannakou still had two major reforms to pass. One was a bill to de-politicise university campuses. Students who failed to graduate would not be allowed to remain enrolled in perpetuity, providing political parties with the footsoldiers to conscript freshmen into their respective student organisations. Most importantly, the bill would change the way university presidents were elected. Since 1982, Greek students, faculty and staff have cast votes for party electors, who would then make the final selection according to party orders and in proportion to the popular vote. This has given parties effective control over nominations and campaigns. Yannakou’s bill would do away with electors and allow voters to support an independent, or a candidate sponsored by a party other than their own.

Yannakou’s last remaining reform was the liberalisation of higher education, a European Union requirement. The Greek the state constitutionally guarantees free higher education, but also requires that it is provided exclusively by Greek public law bodies. That renders private colleges in Greece mere centres for post-secondary education, providing no recognised undergraduate degree programme even if they are accredited by European universities or US accreditation colleges.

Unfortunately for these two reforms, bipartisanship came crashing down on top of them with a nudge from Synaspismos, or Left Coalition - an aggregation of former communists in search of a new ideology. Under Alekos Alavanos, Synaspismos had fallen close to its threshold for entry into parliament of three percent of the popular vote. Desperate for an issue with which to increase its relevance, Synaspismos gunned for Yannakou’s proposals, arguing that they were paving the way for privatisation of the state university system.  Majorities of Greeks were polled as opposing the reforms. Papandreou, who originally backed the reforms, faced an internal opposition in former culture minister Evangelos Venizelos. He was vulnerable, having lost the 2004 general election and Europarliament election, followed by the 2005 local elections.

His support of the reforms wavered through white-hot opposition from Synaspismos in 2006. Synaspismos managed to stage massive street rallies with the help of the secondary teachers’ union, which rightly feared that should universities become more accountable, the appetite for change would push its members towards greater accountability too. The party’s approval ratings soared to 17 percent. In January 2007 Pasok officially reversed its bipartisan position on a pretext – New Democracy foolishly offended Pasok MPs over a constitutional amendment on the environment - and announced that it would fight all constitutional reform, including that on education.

Yannakou’s liberalisation hopes were dead, but she bravely passed her law to depoliticise campuses, albeit a year late. Such was the headwind of public opinion Pasok and Synaspismos had by now whipped up, though, that she lost her seat and cabinet post in that year’s general election.

Since then Papandreou has suppressed any grand pronouncements on education, but his education minister, Anna Diamantopoulou, seems to want to do the right thing, albeit through the back door. In May 2010 she passed a presidential decree recognising the professional qualifications of those with EU educations as long as they were recognised by their professional guild. Although this reform came three years late, in theory it made graduates of private colleges offering EU degrees on Greek soil eligible for public sector positions, a long-standing demand. Nonetheless, problems have remained in implementation. A private college graduate cannot, as a rule, gain acceptance into the technical chamber of commerce, and applications are now being routed through the ministry itself.

Although reform seems to be creeping along, it is far from complete. The European Commission sent Diamantopoulou a Reasoned Opinion on January 28, threatening Greece with a European Court indictment for dragging its feet. Not only is Greece, a European Commission debtor, long overdue to recognise its 26 EU partners’ degrees; it is also shooting itself in the foot by delaying reform. The back door method of recognition also means that most Greeks will continue to ignore non-state higher education as a potential growth sector and export industry for Greece. That is sheer folly in an economy that shrank by four percent for each of the last two years, and is expected to shrink by another 2.5 percent in 2011.

The number of students enrolled in universities outside their country of origin is rising at an accelerating pace. After the OECD started measuring this market in 1980, it took 20 years to double to two million and another seven years to triple to three million. America still holds the largest piece of that pie at 20%, but other countries now understand the economic and intellectual benefits of universities with regional or global reach. Greece could sow and harvest a fallow field in the Balkans and the Middle East with English-language degree programmes that Greeks could also attend; but it cannot do so as a country that has a political issue with higher education that doesn’t come from an overbearing and defunct state.

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