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Will Greece ever embrace private higher education?

Debate has intensified in recent weeks and months in Greece over the possibility of giving privately run colleges university status, which is currently prohibited by Article 16 of the Greek constitution. Discussions were ignited when opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis seized the occasion of a parliamentary debate on constitutional reform in October to demand the abolishment of the barrier to private universities.

Greece

3,300 college degrees were submitted for recognition to the Greek accreditation body between 2012 and 2015. But it only resolved to process them in December 2016

Higher education institutions have always been state owned entities in Greece and their faculty members public servants. However, policy was created during the 1967-74 military junta to prevent communists creating private universities. This principle has since been enshrined in Article 16, adopted in the new constitution of 1974. Some argue that now its function has been inverted, with the left using the exclusion of private providers to defend public education.

“No discussion on higher education can be made if change of Article 16 of the Constitution is not put at the heart of it”

“No discussion on higher education can be made if change of Article 16 of the Constitution is not put at the heart of it,” stated Mitsotakis, chief of the liberal conservative party Nea Dimokratia’s, in parliament. The Greek social democratic party, PASOK, supports this claim. The deputy prime minister in previous PASOK governments, Evangelos Venizelos, has criticised the ruling left-wing Syriza party for not taking the right steps to privatise the public sector, to which Greece’s universities belong.

Many influential members of Syriza, which holds 144 of the 153 seats in Greece’s governing coalition, are university professors themselves. Their stance is expressed in a party declaration issued on the anniversary of the anti-fascist student uprising of 1974, defending Greece’s public universities as “strongholds of democracy.”

The public appears to be as divided as the parliament. A poll conducted late last year for the Athens Chamber of Commerce found 49% of respondents to be in favour of granting university status to private institutions with degrees equivalent to those of their public counterparts.

There are 28 private institutions, or colleges, offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in Greece. That includes two branch campuses: The University of Sheffield International Faculty, CITY College in Thessaloniki, and the University of Indianapolis’s Athens Campus.

To get around the barrier of Article 16, these colleges are run as faculties or franchises of foreign universities, or their degrees are validated by foreign accreditation agencies such as UK NARIC or the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) based in Massachusetts.

Private colleges in Greece by no means share parity with their public counterparts in terms of recognition or reputation

Twenty-two of these colleges, such as the British Hellenic College and the Business College of Athens, are predominantly affiliated with UK universities, while six are American, the American College of Greece being the largest in Greece and the oldest American college in Europe. French, Belgian and Swiss universities are also active in the region in a similar way.

Around 15,000 students attend these private colleges in Greece, 11,000 of whom are at British affiliated colleges, according to the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency. There are no comprehensive data available on the proportion of international students at these institutions, but according numbers given on the websites of the ACG and the Hellenic American College, around 20-25% of students are non-Greek nationals – significantly more than the 2.5% at public universities.

The commercial focus of private colleges is reflected in their prices as well as in the degree programmes they offer. Anatolia College, comprising of an elementary and high school as well as the American College of Thessaloniki, recorded revenues of $25m in 2012, with an MBA carrying an annual price tag of €12,960. Statistics from QAA show that teaching at these colleges is often focused on business and administrative studies, with 5,000 of the 11,000 students at UK affiliated institutions subscribed to such programmes.

But private colleges in Greece by no means share parity with their public counterparts in terms of recognition or reputation. On account of Article 16, the Greek state has long refused to recognise degrees from private colleges. But an EU ruling stating that degrees accredited by other member states must be recognised as equivalent led to a 2008 law granting graduates of private colleges ‘professional rights’. That is to say they have permission to work in the public sector (except as an academic or physician) when before they could only find employment in private companies.

“For 20 years students have been graduating, finding jobs, going on to do master’s degrees. It’s very frustrating”

The reality, however, has yet to catch up with the legislation. Some 3,300 college degrees were submitted for recognition to the Greek accreditation body SAEP between 2012 and 2015. But the organisation only resolved to process the submissions in December 2016, which must then be followed by written tests before graduates’ degrees are certified as professionally equivalent.

The Greek state seems to have little faith in the quality of provision at private colleges. Carolyn Campbell, senior consultant at the OBHE and head of Networks and Partnerships at QAA tells of the Greek authorities’ accusations of low quality, ‘fly-by-night’ colleges. She finds the claims to be baseless.

“When we asked the Greek authorities to give us exact examples, we never ever got any,” says Campbell, “For 20 years students have been graduating, finding jobs, going on to do master’s degrees and doctorates. It’s very frustrating.”

Gabriel Alexopoulos, financial controller of American College Greece, refutes claims of low quality, too. “How bad is a marketing graduate from ACG going to be when some of our alumni have gone on to top positions in companies like Coca Cola and Pfizer?” he argues.

Ioannis Zelepos, professor of Modern Greek History at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, says recent scandals involving private universities in nearby Cyprus, are fresh in the minds of the Greek public. “Private college degrees don’t have a very good reputation,” he says.

But, he concedes, “Some of the arguments against reform seem to me to be strongly ideological. Our public institutions insist on high quality, but they don’t always ensure it themselves.”

“The defunding of state higher education could well be a tactic to make private universities seem necessary”

Indeed, austerity has placed Greece’s public higher education system in dire straits financially, with some universities lacking the funds to pay for paper and field research, not to mention very low salaries for professors.

As a result of the bailout programmes by the EU and the International Monetary Fund, Greek public higher education suffered a 75% cut to its budget five years ago with 15% to 25% slashed each subsequent year. The University of Crete, for instance, had a budget of €17.5m in 2011 and now it is just €3.1m. Hiring of professors has ceased countrywide, so that last year only 300 positions out of 900 vacancies were filled after years of uncertainty for the scientific community.

Some, like Skevos Papaioannou, a sociologist from Crete now teaching at the University of Kassel, believe that “the defunding of state higher education could well be an intentional tactic to make private universities seem a necessary remedy to the sector’s ailments.”

On the other hand, Panayotis Glavinis, a law professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, is convinced that “competition with high quality private universities is needed in order to improve public higher education services.”

Glavinis believes private universities could help in combatting the effects of brain drain, too. Almost half a million young professionals have left Greece since 2008 and 36,000 Greeks currently study abroad, a third of whom are in the UK, according to the latest data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

But could the introduction of domestic private universities cause a turnaround in Greek higher education? “Certainly the high mobility costs would be reduced for families. But I have my doubts that the introduction of private universities alone would stop brain drain and radically improve the situation,” says Zelepos in Munich.

“I have my doubts that the introduction of private universities alone would stop brain drain and radically improve the situation”

With immigration sitting in the crosshairs of heated political debates in many study destinations, a change in policy could also be good news for institutions looking for offshore delivery opportunities. The UK has been involved in transnational education in Greece for around 20 years for example. According to Campbell at the OBHE, Greece “is in the top 10 in terms of numbers of students studying for a UK degree in their home country”.

So what are the odds of changing the law? When the Greek parliament reached a rare consensus to alter Article 16 in 2006, there were violent demonstrations across the country which succeeded in halting reform. Another attempt by the PASOK government in 2012 also came to nothing.

If Article 16 were to find its way onto Syriza’s agenda of constitutional reform during this parliament, another parliament is needed to ratify these terms with a two thirds majority. If Syriza can complete its mandate up until 2019, private universities could, in theory, be legalised by 2020.

This, however, is highly improbable. Syriza is still firmly opposed to granting university status to private providers and doesn’t look to be changing its position any time soon.

As for the future of private colleges, Gabriel Alexopoulos at ACG is hopeful. “I’m optimistic,” he says. “I’m not optimistic we’ll see Article 16 change soon, but the law of 2008 giving our graduates ‘professional rights’ helps us a lot and I believe that in three or four years our degrees will be fully accepted by everyone and our graduates will stop experiencing delays in getting their degrees recognised.”

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