GREECE: Far-reaching European Court ruling

A controversial decision by the European Court of Justice is likely to have far-reaching effects on higher education in Greece. The court's decision, based on the 89/48 EC directive, held that the Greek rules on recognition of diplomas are contrary to community legislation. Moreover, the court ruled that only member states where a diploma was awarded may verify its basis, thereby denying any form of control, academic or administrative, to the host member states.

An action against Greece and another seven countries, Belgium, Ireland, Spain, France, Cyprus, Austria, and Portugal, was brought before the court by the European Commission for non-compliance with the provisions of Community Directive 89/48. Denmark will also be warned for similar violations.

The commission claimed that Greece systematically refused to recognise diplomas obtained following education and training provided under a franchise agreement by a private body in Greece and an authority in another member state which awarded the diploma on the basis of a prior agreement between the two establishments.

Such diplomas are awarded in Greece by a number of foreign universities, mainly from Britain, to students in a small number of liberal studies centres or LSCs. These do not belong to any recognised educational level, provide non-typical post-secondary education and operate under a licence from the Ministry of Trade.

The court's decision was based on an interpretation of the law and does not take into consideration the special conditions prevailing in Greece. It rules that recognition of diplomas is based on the mutual trust that member states have in their respective professional qualifications. It does not examine the intrinsic value of a diploma but establishes the presumption the qualification which entitles a person to pursue a regulated profession in one member state is sufficient for the pursuit of that profession in the other member states.

Moreover, it is for the authority awarding the diploma alone to verify the conditions necessary for their award and the nature of the establishment in which the holder receives his or her education and training. In this respect, the host country cannot examine the basis on which the diplomas have been awarded and this is a serious matter of contention for the Greek academic community as well as the government.

Although the government was expecting the decision of the court regarding recognition of the diplomas, it was caught off balance by the denial of control. Education Secretary Evripidis Stylianidis, who had skilfully navigated legislation through the parliament last summer setting down precise specifications for the academic, financial and administrative details, and for the operation of the LSCs, is now politically exposed.

The court's ruling that "the host member state cannot examine the basis on which the diplomas have been awarded; and that the education and training must not necessarily have been received in a university or in a higher education establishment" means the legislation is clearly invalid and the Education Secretary's credibility greatly reduced.

The academic community's reaction to the ruling was sharp and likely to escalate in the future. The Vice-Rector of the National Technological University of Athens, the country's oldest and most respected institution, Professor John Polyzos, immediately resigned in protest. The university's senate committee issued a tough statement against the court's decision while lecturers, researchers, staff and students called general assemblies, protests, marches and demonstrations.

The 57th University Rectors Synod last weekend, attended by the Education Secretary, rejected the court's decision and demanded the ruling not be embodied in the Greek law. A delegation from the National Technological University of Athens withdrew in protest the moment the Education Secretary entered the hall.

At the same time in another part of the country, the Technological Institutes Rectors Synod rejected the court's ruling and demanded the government re-examine its policy of funding institutions threatened by the court's ruling. The rectors argued that the degrees their universities awarded were effectively downgraded by equating them with diplomas awarded by the LSCs.

The Technological Institute of Piraeus suspended its operation for one day in protest at the equating of the qualifications, as well as the government's economic policy which prevents the effective operations of the institution. An administration statement said that unless EUR3.5 million (US$4.5 million) was made available, the institution would have no choice but to suspend its entire operation by the end of the year.

Huge demonstrations with the participation of lecturers, administrative staff and students took place last Wednesday in the centre of Athens and other cities where universities are based. The following day, all higher education institutions were symbolically closed in protest. More demonstrations and marches are planned for the rest of the month and in particular on the 20-21 and 25-26 November.

The situation is explosive and likely to get worse unless steps are taken to defuse it quickly. The government is trapped by its neo-liberal ideology and its expressed policy for the commercialisation of education in order to avoid public subsidies.

The institutions are trapped in their fear (justified to a point) that their degrees will be downgraded if the LSCs and their degrees are recognised. They discern the government's intention to continue to reduce their already meagre funds, thereby preventing then from sustaining the quality of their studies. Lecturers are afraid they may lose their jobs and students of eventually losing their free education.

The onus is on the government to provide a solution if the country is not to witness another prolonged conflict which is likely to prove damaging to higher education. It needs to abandon its ideological fixations, particularly now that the neo-liberal model of government has partially collapsed world-wide, and should abandon its attempt to deliver higher education to private interests and revise its funding policy towards the institutions.

The European court's ruling may well be a condemnation but it is also an opportunity. Education is still the responsibility of the member states and the court recognises that. The institutions, however, cannot operate efficiently without sufficient funds and with the threat of unfair competition hanging over them. The government needs to step in and reassure the state institutions of their future.

In one night, the Greek Chancellor of the Exchequer found no less that EUR28 billion, 11.4% of the GNP, to shore up the tottering banks. If 10% of that money was directed towards the universities and technological institutes (which the banks will administer anyway), it would double the money allocated for the whole of education. Instead EUR280,000 was cut from education in next year's budget.

This year, more than 60,000 students were left outside higher education and a large number will inevitably turn to the colleges hoping to get an education and a diploma. Many professional exchanges, including the law society and the technical exchange (both advisors to the government) claim these diplomas have no basis in the labour market.

Were the government to increase funding to the state universities and technological institutes, they would no doubt be able to absorb these students and provide them with a far more substantial education and a degree they would effectively use both in the private and the public sector.

The court's ruling obliges the government to recognise the diplomas foreign universities have awarded under franchising, but it also indicates the host country has the right to take some compensatory measures. These could include a period of adaptation or an aptitude test, the choice of which is left to the person applying for recognition of the diploma. Steps in that direction may reassure the academic community their fears are unfounded.

A definite move to find enough money to enable institutions to absorb the 60,000 students who were left outside higher education may go a long way to satisfying the institutions. While they are demanding closure of the LSCs, a more effective way may be to starve them from their clientele - this would force the colleges to suspend their operations thereby obviating the need for more drastic measures from the government.

The court's decision is not the end of the road. It may be an opportunity for a new beginning between the government and the institutions which ultimately will be called on to lift the economy from its present doldrums. The government has the tools, the question is whether it is willing to use them.

The colleges in the centre of the storm are keeping a very low profile, studiously avoiding any form of jubilation given the court's ruling has justified their position. In a statement, the colleges claimed they would not be opposed to the Ministry of Education's control "provided it does not contravene the court's ruling".

It went on to say that although no control could be exercised over academic programmes, the qualifications of the teachers and the quality of studies, could be. The colleges would also welcome partial control over building specifications, advertising and other administrative activities.

The LSC's Association has 11 members and there another seven which cooperate with foreign universities.