GREECE: Study centres devalue university degrees

Greek universities fear the EU's latest directive will open the floodgates to sub-standard foreign competition and devalue university degrees in the process by treating liberal study centres as equal to universities. For British universities already offering programmes via the centres, there may be rich pickings.

Suddenly everyone is interested in Greek education. Ambassadors, foreign ministers, heads of foreign universities, even the US Secretary of State for Education, have been coming and going at the Greek Education Ministry. They have come to talk about the Greek liberal studies centres, those educational mongrels for so long on the periphery of the system that have now been catapulted into the news by European Union directive 36/2005.

The centres do not come under the jurisdiction of the Education Ministry. They operate under licence from the Ministry of Development, formerly the Ministry of Trade, and claim to offer university-level education. In fact, they offer no more than post-secondary education and charge very high fees. They are linked to foreign universities, mainly British, which provide the programmes students follow either for two years in their own countries and another two years abroad, or all four years at home or abroad.

Degrees issued by these 'colleges' are not recognised by the Greek state. Their graduates are not allowed to apply for positions in the public sector although there are no restrictions in the private sector. But EU directive 36/2005 obliges Greece to make no distinction between the professional rights of students who have graduated from the centres and those from Greek universities. The former feel it is only fair, the latter that their degrees are being undervalued.

Anger among lecturers has boiled over into a spate of one and two-day strikes.
There are already more than 25,000 graduates of the centres eagerly waiting to apply for positions in the public sector following the EU directive. Some have already taken legal proceedings against the government and are pressing for recognition of their professional qualifications.

The 10,000 students at the centres are eager to find out what the future holds for them. They and those who come after them are the reason why foreign representatives are crowding the Education Ministry's corridors. They want to know when Education Secretary Evripidis Stylianidis intends to embed the EU directive in Greek law, which will open the way for foreign universities to set up branches in Greece.

Undoubtedly, Britain, France and other major West European countries, as well as the US, are more interested in the far bigger emerging educational markets of China, India and Russia. But the estimated €30 billion (US$42 billion) Greek market is not to be sneezed at.

Stylianidis, however, is not in a hurry. He is committed to the government's policy of recognising the centres as colleges but in the light of his predecessor's experience – being dumped by voters in the last general election – he intends to tread very carefully.

He does not want to antagonise either the students or the academic community by rushing forward with legislation. Strictly speaking, he is not obliged to comply with the EU directive and could claim, with some justification, that the colleges are not part of the country's educational system, that they are merely commercial enterprises, and could refuse to recognise them or even close them down.

But with only a slim majority of two in the present parliament and struggling in the polls, the ruling conservatives need all the support they can get and there are plenty of those who look to the colleges to make money. These include many graduates who would like to see their professional qualifications upgraded to a university degree and a lot of parents who do not wish to see the aspirations of their offspring unfulfilled.

So Stylianidis is waiting for the final decision of the European Court of Justice, not expected until spring, before he presents his own decision. He is committed to recognising the centres but only under new and stricter legislation as well as clear guidelines; plus specifications regarding the academic programmes, building facilities, teaching staff qualifications and continuous assessment by internal and external examiners.

The colleges' owners promise bigger investment and upgrading of their services after recognition. They say they are able to withstand the most severe scrutiny, including the qualifications of their teaching staff and the quality of their educational programmes. Full higher education status would add kudos and bring more clients to their business.

But regional university and technological institute presidents are worried that recognising the colleges will sound the death-knell of their institutions. They have already lost more than 30,000 students following the previous Education Secretary's decision to preclude students from courses with less than 50% of the top mark.

The presidents fear a large number of students will prefer to go to a revamped and upgraded private college, pay an annual fee of some €10,000 and live at home with their parents, rather than spend an equivalent amount in living expenses while attending a far-flung state higher education establishment.

Some of the regional state higher institutions are fighting back by forming alliances, upgrading their services, exchanging information, and sharing funds.

"Most of these colleges," said a regional university source, "do not provide anything other than post-secondary education and we feel they have a long way to go to achieve a higher education standard; so we concentrate on areas where we have a good record and on fields (such as medicine and cutting-edge sciences) where these 'colleges' are unlikely to become active."

The government's expressed policy is to attract foreign investment on the one hand and provide strong competition for the state universities on the other, without committing additional funds for education. But state institutions fear that, instead of becoming more competitive, they will be starved of funds while private colleges flourish by providing fashionable courses and degrees, charging high fees and repatriating their profits.

The only satisfaction Greek students will have, they say, is that they will be graduating from Harvard or the London School of Economics without leaving these pleasant shores.