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Friday, September 19, 2003

Our Opinion

The ABCs of Higher Education in Greece


Recently, the Greek government announced a number of initiatives in higher education, including the establishment of two new universities (in Kozani and Lamia) and a technical college (in Argostoli, Cephalonia). In addition, plans were unveiled for an “international Greek university” (!) in Thessaloniki designed specifically for students from the Greek Diaspora and neighboring countries. The announcement of these wide-ranging (if not particularly well thought-out) proposals provoked the standard (and expected) reaction from the conservative opposition, which accused the government (more or less accurately) of opportunistic pandering to voters in what is now, for all intents and purposes, the run-up to the next parliamentary elections. Unfortunately, New Democracy didn’t have much else to say about the matter, and it certainly did not engage the government substantively or in any depth on the (many) critical issues of higher education in Greece that need to be addressed comprehensively. By and large, the government’s announced “expansion” of higher education came and went unnoticed.

The most obvious question, of course, is whether or not Greece needs any more universities, especially considering the job market (and its current rigidities) for existing — and, more often than not, unemployed, underemployed, or, worst of all, emigrating — graduates. All that the establishment of new universities does is to make an untenable situation even less tenable, and a relatively incoherent structure of higher education less coherent, less rational, less efficient (socially), less effective (individually), and utterly indefensible in its current formulation.

In an article published last week by the Western Policy Center (see www.westernpolicy.org), Richard Jackson, president of Anatolia College/The American College of Thessaloniki (ACT), and Kimis Krionas, vice president of the institution’s alumni association, argued for an end to Greece’s ban on private universities. The publication of this proposal so soon after the announcement of the Greek government’s own initiatives was not coincidental. Richard Jackson is intimately familiar with higher education in Greece, and he stands to play an important role if private institutions are allowed to function. The timing of the article by him and Mr. Krionas seeks to broaden the debate around higher education beyond the admittedly sterile issue of further expansion of the public-university system; specifically, it wants to put the much more significant issue of (for lack of a better phrase) educational deregulation on the Greek policy agenda.

Both journalists and politicians who criticized the government’s initiative, as well as Richard Jackson, focused their fire on the arteriosclerotic nature of a system that has turned academics into privileged civil servants and overtly undervalued academic research and the development of new fields of study. Furthermore (and many times as a result of the aforementioned), the system mass-produces graduates who are not only incompatible with the needs of the job market, but also, frankly, not even well educated. (To be fair to Greece, of course, the phenomenon of educational degradation — what has come to be called “dumbing down” in the US — has been observed, and commented upon, in many Western countries in the last 20 years, not least of all in the US itself.)

Nevertheless, the Greek government has consistently claimed, as it has proceeded almost nonstop for the last 30 years from one educational “reform” to another, that a major reason for its tight control over higher education is precisely to ensure that the system fills the needs of the job market and does not produce large numbers of over- or unqualified graduates. The conflict here, as always, is the need to balance a supply-and-demand approach to education with an…educational approach. Both the supporters of more public universities and the proponents of private ones resort in the end to the same pseudo-egalitarian slogan: Higher education for all. Well, yes, of course. Who can disagree? The problem is, however, that unless there are strictly enforced standards, the requisite infrastructure, and sufficient planning, the addition of more universities, whether public or private, does not necessarily mean better education or, for that matter, a more efficient, coherent, or structurally sustainable job market.

The time has indeed come for major reforms in Greek higher education. (You’ve heard this all before and repeatedly over the years, of course.) Allowing private universities and other institutions of tertiary education is undoubtedly part of such reforms. But this is not a simple process. It requires a profound — and profoundly responsible and accountable — system of checks and balances. Opening the market to private institutions operating on US models without considering the specificities of the Greek educational system will inevitably provoke chaos, and, possibly, educational disaster. An unfortunate — and increasingly sweeping — tendency has developed during the last few years to throw the baby out with the bathwater. More and more, the authentic achievements of the Greek system of higher education — the Athens Polytechnic, just to name an obvious example, or the University of Crete, to name a less obvious one — are ignored or even denigrated, while the “virtues” of private education are consistently overrated.

This is not — or should not be — a zero-sum game in which there is only one winner (private education) and one loser (public education). It is — or should be — a genuine intellectual and educational competition that will create both better public and private higher education. In the event, the one-size-fits-all assumption that the American model of higher education can be mechanically applied to Greece is naive — and actually imprudent — in the extreme. Education, like so much of our lives, is demeaned and in fact undermined when it is treated as just another commodity of just another market. In this, as again in so many other aspects of the life of human beings, American and European perspectives on the roles of the public and the private differ fundamentally. The Greek case is particularly instructive (or extreme, depending on one’s point of view), not only culturally but linguistically, as the root for the words “private” and “idiot” is the same in Greek.

More to the point, “education” is one thing, “paideia” quite another. The former word simply does not have the cultural patrimony of the latter one. “Education” will never possess the ethical resonance in American culture that “paideia” does in Greek culture — nor will the notion of education ever exercise on the imagined American community the power (one could fairly call it tyranny) of paideia on Greek self-definition. Greek higher education can certainly improve, and Greek public universities can assuredly stand competition from private ones. But whether they’re public or private, Greek universities will have to contend with the awesome cultural and intellectual legacy that resides in the concept of paideia, and that’s easier said than done.

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