GREECE: Inauspicious start to education dialogue

Lack of money and the absence of a specific policy are placing serious obstacles ahead of the forthcoming dialogue on education, announced by Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis in parliament a fortnight ago and being undertaken by Education Secretary Aris Spiliotopoulos. The government is placing enormous importance on the reform of education in an effort to restore its tarnished image and losses it has suffered in areas such as the economy, agriculture, health and unemployment - but the indications are not encouraging.

So far only the small right-wing party LAOS and the Primary Teachers Federation have accepted the Education Secretary's invitation to the dialogue, which is due to start next week. Left-wing parties and the Secondary Teachers Federation have refused to participate while the main opposition party PASOK will only take part under certain conditions.

During a recent visit to the Primary Teachers Federation for bilateral talks, its president reminded the Education Secretary that he was a member of a government that less than a month ago voted "the lowest expenditure for education in the last 50 years".

PASOK spokesperson for education, Anna Diamantopoulou, also at a bilateral meeting, accused the government of lacking seriousness. It was hoped, she said, that members of the government "realise that education is the first priority for the country, fill their tabula rasa ['zero start'] as quickly as possible and approach with due seriousness the subject of the dialogue which unfortunately did not start very auspiciously".

For his part, Spiliotopoulos has been doing what he can to persuade the academic community that he is earnest and his colleagues in government that "we must put our money where our mouth is". To his credit he is understood to have said that "education without money is like trying to make bricks without mortar", and asked to be told now how much he would be given by the treasury and when.

On the procedural front, however, Spiliotopoulos has not managed to avoid creating conflict between two distinguished professors vying for the much-coveted honour to lead the process and deliver the outcome of the dialogue.

Last week he appointed as president of the committee responsible for the dialogue one of Greece's distinguished academics - Professor George Babiniotis, a linguist with an international reputation, a former chancellor of the University of Athens and author of the Greek Language Dictionary bearing his name.

Spiliotopoulos deliberately passed over the president of the National Education Committee, Professor Thanos Veremis, who would have been the automatic choice if he had not rushed to publicise his own proposals, which are thought to compromise his political boss' expressed philosophy of tabula rasa.

Although they are both conservative, the two professors have diametrically opposed views regarding the direction of the forthcoming dialogue.

Babiniotis is proposing disengagement of senior high school from the university entrance examinations, so that it becomes an autonomous educational level in its own right; the establishment either of a post-secondary education year which will not be taken into account for university studies (1+4); or a pre-university foundation year which will be taken into account (1+3). He also proposes the establishment of a national examinations board where candidates will be examined as many times as they like in order to improve their grades; and entrance exams directly from universities which will also set the subjects.

Veremis, on the other hand, favours a post-secondary foundation course for which candidates would have to choose one of four areas of study, and on which they would be examined. He also proposed the reduction of primary education by one year so that the 12 year study-cycle would not be affected. The National Education Council is suggesting a much more developed proposal than Veremis, its president, while the Secondary Teachers Federation favours open access to university coupled with a generous increase in state funding.

The political parties have their own policies. PASOK, the official Opposition, proposes a system of 'national certificate' after successful completion of an autonomous senior high school sector and university entrance examinations with the subjects set by institutions, as well as a change in the method of state funding from institutions to individual students so that the number of students increases gradually.

The Communist Party favours post-secondary education examinations but unlimited choice of subjects and unlimited opportunities for candidates to consolidate their grades, while the Left-Wing Alliance proposes free access to the first year of university for all students who complete senior high school successfully irrespective of their grades, including counting the year towards the overall duration of the course (1+3).

Even the least attentive reader will immediately perceive that these problems and a host of others so endemic in Greek education were resolved a long time ago by other countries.

One cannot help feeling that once again the current dialogue is only a pretext for a government paralysed by its inability to make meaningful proposals about education and put them into operation, for fear of the political cost.

This is not the first time that a dialogue has been proposed as an excuse for inactivity or as a potential way out of a crisis. A 'national education dialogue' initiated in 2005, when Marietta Giannakou was Education Secretary, ended ingloriously when all participating institutions withdrew, accusing the government of deception.

They claimed, then, that the government had already taken decisions and a few months later Giannakou's successor, Evripidis Stylianidis, proved them right by attempting to impose unworkable measures which provoked sharp reaction among students and academics alike.

In the wake of last December's student uprising, the government is in dire need of a political victory to shore up its sagging fortunes and regain a little of the public's confidence currently buffeted by a fast-worsening economic situation.

Education is a privileged field in which the government can risk a revival of its fortunes, but its previous appalling record of having reduced state funding for education in the last three successive budgets to the lowest in history does not bode at all well for the outcome of the dialogue it has initiated.