GREECE: Licensing of private colleges postponed

At the last moment, the assessment process for granting licences to private colleges has been postponed.

The assessment process started last July and was due to be completed by the end of August so that the 33 applicant institutions could be given a licence to operate from this month, in time for the new academic cycle, despite strong objections that the time span for the examination of the files and on-site visits was insufficient.

As August is a peak holiday month it was also likely that some members of the assessment committee would be unavailable.

The postponement has not altogether come as a surprise. Universities, technological institutes and educational trades unions have strongly urged the government to reconsider the policies relating to recognition of private colleges.

They warned that members of the academic community were determined to consider a long-term lock-out as well as other forms of mobilisation if the government went ahead with the licensing of private colleges.

Apart from the academic community's reaction, the political situation in Greece is becoming increasingly unstable and many feel it is only a matter of time before Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis calls for a general election more than two years before his term of office comes to an end, forced upon him by a majority of one in parliament, disastrous economic policies and financial scandals involving members of his New Democracy party.

The process suffered a severe set back last month when Professor Theodor Fortsakis, president of the legal department of the University of Athens, the universities' representative on the assessment committee, resigned, denouncing the entire procedure.

More recently, Professor Michael Bratakos, the technical institutions' representative, also resigned, citing similar reasons. The Federation of Technical Institutes Teachers has now written to Aris Spiliotopoulos, the Secretary of State for Education, claiming that the process was illegal since the committee was no longer up to full strength.

The federation also pointed out that, according to the law, the assessment of the colleges should not be restricted only to the examination of their files but had to be carried out in their premises, with a thorough examination of their infrastructure, study programmes, equipment and services provided as well as the qualifications of their students.

In an interview in a leading daily newspaper, Nikos Stavrakakis, president of the Panhellenic Federation of University Teachers Associations, issued a direct challenge to the government over the legality of the recognition and licensing process.

He argued that Greece is not obliged to recognise private colleges because "neither the European law nor the European Court of Justice compels EU member-states to organise their higher education in a specific way".

Stavrakakis said that "the academic community will assert the moral right of the universities to protect that part of the new generation and the Greek family which is being attacked by the government's policies".

The presidents of the 14 Technical Education Institutes declared their intention to take to the streets with their students and their graduates in order to prevent recognition of the private colleges. They said: "In a free market economic environment the private colleges offer a choice to those who have the financial ability to make use of their services; it is, however, totally unacceptable for the State to direct young people towards them, and avoid serious initiatives for the economic strengthening of our institutions."

Their statement concluded: "We will defend together with students and graduates our institutions by all means including dynamic mobilisation until we are justified."

Anna Diamandopoulou, opposition spokesperson for education, accused the government of an inability to control the post-secondary education area as a result of which thousands of young people and their parents were victims of financial exploitation. "The crisis in the assessment committee makes it impossible for the completion of the process and raises serious doubts as regards the legality and the transparency of the licensing procedure."

Konstantinos Karkanias, a college owner and president of the Private Colleges Association, expressed surprise at the postponement, but said he was confident the problem could be solved easily and the process continued. "All the Ministry of Education has to do is to appoint new academic representatives in the assessment committee," he said.

A general election is not necessarily going to resolve the issue. The probable winner - George Papandreou - supports private universities but his Panhellenic Socialist Movement does not.