GREECE: Access reform overdue

Egalitarian but unfair, free but expensive, complex and complicated are some of the contradictions of Greek higher education that everyone knows and talks about but no one is willing to take the necessary measures to resolve them.

Democratic and egalitarian the system certainly is - in as much as everyone, in theory, can study what they want and where they want (provided they have the appropriate knowledge and the necessary grades). But in practice the situation is very different.

Higher education is provided free by the state, no fees are charged. But since students need a long and sustained preparation to achieve the required standard to pass the entrance examinations, particularly in popular subject, it proves to be particularly expensive.

Access to higher education is so complicated and complex, and ultimately it creates so many anomalies, that many people would probably prefer a little more simplicity even if it meant a little more meritocracy.

Students need the skills of an accountant if not an alchemist to calculate the grades required for a particular course. More often than not, they are obliged to follow a course they have not chosen in institutions far from home for which they have neither a feeling nor an aptitude.

Although the process appears to be irreproachable, it is riddled with infringements, violations and favouritism (illegal transfers, leaking of subjects). How could it not be since it is a phenomenon that runs through every aspect of the Greek society?

At the end of the last year of senior high school, students are obliged to sit a nationwide examination, the so-called Panhellenic examinations, whether they wish to continue to higher education or not.

They are examined in six subjects in three education directions: theoretical, technological and practical. A composition is common to all and each different direction is completed by a number of relevant subjects. The grades that students achieve in each subject are weighted by a special factor to give their final grade.

This grade is augmented by what they achieve in the examinations for their final or leaving certificate in nine subjects and forms the basis for their access to university courses.

In theory, students do not fail the examinations although in practice they may miss out on university because all the available places decided each year by the Education Ministry have been absorbed by students with higher grades.

The last but one Education Secretary, Marietta Giannakou, in an effort to improve the university intake standard created another contradiction: students who did not achieve a base grade were not given a place. As a result, a great number of courses, particularly in provincial technological institutes, were discontinued for lack of students.

After the two examinations, Panhellenic and Final, students choose the courses they wish to follow by completing an application form with all available courses in universities and higher education institutions. There are 23 universities, 16 technological institutes and 11 higher military and religious academies.

Base grades go up and down each year depending on results, places available and demand. The previous year's results offer students an approximate guide for their choice of courses

Yet students who wanted to go to a law school in Athens may find themselves attending agricultural engineering in Crete, or Salonica. Correspondingly, some who wanted to study pharmacy may find themselves in a computer course in Patras or Ioannina - or a completely irrelevant course in any of the universities or technological institutes.

Because the examinations are tough and calculated to separate "the wheat from the chaff", students who wish to continue on to higher education find recourse in the so-called frondistiria, private schools operating alongside state schools teaching the basic curriculum, often by the same teachers preparing students for the exams.

But the cost is high. Depending on their ability and natural aptitude, students may have to attend sometime one, two or even three years. Currently, fees range from EUR500 - EUR800 per month or a total of EUR6,000-EUR10,000 a year.

That is one side of the coin. The other is when students gain a place at a provincial university and have to live away from home: living expenses, accommodation, transport and incidentals add another EUR8,000-EUR12.000 a year.

Parents with children in higher education need to have really deep pockets. One or two years preparation and four years plus in university may cost EUR50,000-EUR80,000 for one child. More often than not, parents have more than one child in higher education.

So what happens to the poor students, those whose parents do not have the money to support them through a higher education course? They don't go to university. There is no system of grants and the few scholarships available for brilliant students are not enough to sustain a whole course of study.

Students who succeed in gaining a place register for the course and then try to find a job to sustain themselves. Some succeed in finishing the course others become 'eternal students'.

Destitute students may apply for food and board at the university campus and may succeed after a rather dubious for its effectiveness and often abused means test. Students living outside in their own accommodation may receive a EUR1,000 towards the rent. Students without parents to support them find the going extremely tough.

Since the expense at keeping a child in a Greek university is high many parents seriously consider sending their children to foreign universities (Britain, America, the Balkans) where fees and living expenses do not amount to much more and where ostensibly one gets a better education.

Parents also look favourably at foreign or Greek private colleges not yet officially recognised as equivalent to state universities. They charge high fees but give students the opportunity to live at home and consequently it appeals to many parents.

Education Secretary Aris Spiliotopoulos has recently initiated discussion about reforming the system with three aims under consideration: establishing secondary education as an autonomous educational level, changing the way students gain access to universities and establishing a foundation year if necessary.

Distinguished linguist Professor George Babiniotis is leading the dialogue which, at his own request, will last for six months. Any findings will be debated in parliament and in all probability will become law.

The dialogue is an unprecedented procedure but it has been boycotted by the left-wing opposition parties so any findings may not be widely accepted by the academic community.

The process is also likely to be interrupted if there is a general election and the present government is replaced by the official opposition.

Whatever the fate of the present dialogue, reform is long overdue. Iit is almost an axiom that whatever government is in power, no reform is likely to succeed unless funds are substantially increased beyond their present measly level.