GREECE: Cheque-book higher education

The first step towards privatisation of higher education in Greece has been taken by the government despite strong opposition from the academic community, political parties, educational trades unions as well as parents and students at large.

The controversial legislation which allegedly would regularise the status of private colleges that collaborate with foreign higher education institutions was deliberately tabled during the summer session of parliament by Education Secretary Evripidis Stylianidis to avoid strong reactions and social unrest.

With only a third of the MPs present in parliament, with universities closed and students on their summer holidays, the main burden of the opposition to the bill fell on the party political leaders, the rectors of the state universities and the trades unions. The students' reaction is expected at the start of the new academic year in October.

The legislation legalises private colleges but also sundry providers of post-secondary education and training and allows them to collaborate not only with European or American universities but any other foreign higher education and research institution. The latter may also if they wish establish autonomous branches in the country.

The only compulsory provision is that they should be called colleges and one of the specifications is that their headquarters should be based in an EU member state.

Though the legislation facilitates recognition of the professional rights of graduates of colleges which collaborate with British or American universities, it does not control the course content which remains exclusively the responsibility of the institution or university.

The number of teachers, their qualifications, specifications for registration, assessment, development and graduation should be equivalent with those in force at the head institution abroad which also has exclusive responsibility to assess the quality of the institution with which it collaborates in Greece.

But the legislation is extremely ambiguous regarding the terms and conditions for the operation of the colleges, their infrastructure, services and staff qualifications. It allows interested parties until August 2009 to submit applications and specification and sets very low fees for an operating licence which will be renewable every three years.

A separate bureau and a registry of colleges will be established at the Ministry of Education which will have overall supervision and impose fines if and when necessary.

The Education Secretary's manoeuvre to present his controversial bill during parliament's summer session may have prevented student riots, demonstrations and marches in the streets and on the campuses but it was not enough to spare him from a severe attack from politicians and the academic community.

The leader of the left-wing Alliance Party, Alekos Alavanos, speaking during the parliamentary debate, said, "The government is attempting to undermine the state universities and privatise higher education with a constitutional coup d'etat." Alavanos claimed the legislation would not be applied even if it was voted in.

Opposition spokesman Evangelos Venizelos, himself a distinguished academic and constitutional law professor, speaking on behalf of the Panhellenic Socialist Party, said the legislation would bring about the dissolution of the state university because it gave private companies the opportunity to collaborate with "dubious quality foreign institutions".

Lazaros Apekis, president of the Federation of University Teachers and Researchers Associations, said that the Education Secretary was attempting to abolish article 16 of the constitution which forbade private universities. Apekis said this was against the wishes of the academic community and the students "who opposed his kind of reforms dynamically during the winter and will do so again if necessary".

The most severe criticism of the Education Secretary's approach however, was delivered by the leadership of the Technological Exchange, the government's official advisor in technical matters.

In a letter to MPs and the political parties, the exchange said it would contest the legislation in the courts for two main reasons: it contained a series of arbitrary provisions and because it was unacceptable that private college graduates could have equal rights with those graduating from state universities.

The Greek Colleges Association's reaction to the legislation was rather lukewarm since its members, the main beneficiaries, quite clearly expected it to go a lot further. Association President Kostas Karkanias welcomed the legislation but went on to complain of the government's procrastination regarding compliance with EU directive 36/2005 which obliges the Greek government to recognise the professional rights of some 25,000 college graduates.