GREECE: OECD demands constitutional reforms

Only constitutional reforms such as the payment of fees and the operation of private universities will improve Greek higher education, the OECD insists in its 2009 report on Greece.

The recommendations were also included in the organisation's previous report in 2007 although it now offers proposals for weathering the international crisis, enhancing fiscal stability and improving the performance of the public health care system

Some international organisations have disputed the government's economic policies and proposed tough measures and further austerity, including sharp reductions in wages and pensions. But the OECD urges the government not to impose any tax increases, arguing this would slow the economy and arrest progress out of recession.

The report notes that an earlier proposal calling for a well-performing evaluation system of universities is already in place. That the first evaluation of five universities threw up some lax management practices shows the need for greater effort, it says.

Other recommendations relating funding to indicators of performance, more autonomy in selecting staff and students, and restriction of study time to specific years are being considered or implemented with the consensus of the institutions.

Despite the report's sound analysis, its recommendations calling for introduction of student fees and private universities - both requiring constitutional reform not due until 2014 - are questionable. Far from being a panacea for all the ills of the Greek higher education, the recommendations are retrograde and unlikely to produce the expected results if not exacerbate the existing situation.

The majority of Greek universities have an excellent reputation and the competition to secure a place in their courses is extremely high. About half the competing candidates are excluded every year after failing the Panhellenic Entrance Examinations - a deliberately tough test used by the state to limit student numbers gaining access to higher education.

Fees (even low ones) are unlikely to improve university finances or eradicate the public's justified lack of confidence in primary and secondary levels of free education. This leads parents to place their offspring in cram schools which, while placing an enormous burden on family incomes, are the only means of achieving success in the exams and thereby securing a coveted place in a free university.

Private universities that the OECD puts forward as a panacea for the problems of Greek higher education are forbidden by the Greek constitution. Yet they are allowed to operate with the state's tacit approval.

These are mainly American colleges and Greek liberal studies centres operating under franchise agreements with several mainly British universities. They do not provide better quality studies than the free state universities and they charge high fees from EUR10,000-EUR30,000 (US$14,000 - US$43,000).

They also recruit their students from those who failed to secure a place in a state university or state technological education institute, and from those without the means to go abroad to one of the preferred British universities or even a university in the Balkans.

With the support of the EU, several of these private colleges and 'universities' are about to be licensed by the Greek government and their graduates will have their professional rights recognised.

Many shortcomings besetting higher education are enumerated in the OECD report: a "civil servant" attitude by academic and administration staff, lack of flexibility, high drop-out rates, restrictive entry, mismatch between university and industry, an examination-oriented education, performance below OECD standards, and many more.

But the recommendations fall short of addressing the real root of these problems. Greek universities are often created by party political efforts to satisfy local demands and, spread as they are around the country, are inadequately funded with unpopular programmes and often without an appreciable number of students.

These institutions are struggling to maintain a good standard against difficult and often impossible conditions while relying on the individual commitment of the teaching and administrative staff.

A proposal by the Greek Education Council to abolish entrance examinations and thereby lift restrictions on student numbers needs careful consideration, the OECD report states. It notes that universities and other higher education institutions may not be ready to cope with the flood of students that will result.

Plans to establish a foundation course and make the senior high school an autonomous level, separate from higher education, are also under consideration.

Yet Greeks have fought long and hard to establish a free state education and free access to higher education. They are unlikely to accept the kind of reforms the report suggests.

A strong consensus exists among academics against the reform of article 16 of the constitution which forbids private universities while introduction of fees is not even discussed as a possibility. Both issues are highly emotive among students even if some politicians may support them.

Even if the OECD proposals were adopted and eventually implemented, it is not certain they would bring about a much-needed improvement in higher education.

What is certain, however, is that they will always be associated in the minds of ordinary Greek people with the darkest and most reactionary periods of their history, highly elitist and divisive, marked with inequality, restrictions and socio-political and religious discrimination.