GREECE: Government makes education a priority

The new socialist leadership at the Greek Education Ministry has exhibited more purpose, energy and willingness to come to grips with education's problems than the former conservative government showed in the last five and a half years - which bodes well for the future.

Among the priorities Education Secretary Anna Diamandopoulou has put into immediate effect include a gradual funding increase from the current 3% of GNP to 5%, abolition of the double shift in primary and secondary education, abolition of hourly-paid teachers and the appointment of some 7,000 teachers to cover a shortfall in schools.

As well, the National Council of Education will be upgraded to an independent authority so it will not be dependent on the minister or the government.

Diamandopoulou also announced the freezing of two measures initiated by the previous government: the merger of some 30 research centres into a group of larger ones, and the recognition of the private colleges. Both measures were unpalatable to the academic community and were vehemently opposed.

The former government refused to increase funding for research and had proposed the research centres merger for economic reasons. The socialists have now guaranteed the independence of the research institutes and promised to double funding from 1% to 2% of GNP.

The private colleges are a thorn in the academic community's flesh. They grew initially out of the state's inability to provide enough university places for all and assist students who fail to secure a place in a higher education institution at home and cannot afford to go abroad, as well as parents who wish to keep their offspring closer to home.

Over the years, the colleges have fought a rearguard action to be recognised as universities without a proper infrastructure, appropriate building facilities and equipment or properly qualified staff. Most have franchise agreements with foreign universities, mainly British or American, to promote their programmes.

But their recognition as universities stumbles against article 16 of the Greek constitution which states unequivocally that higher education is the exclusive domain of the state. Attempts to reform the article and open the way for private universities have always faced opposition from students and lecturers.

The European Union wants to open Greek education to private interests and the European Court of Justice last year ordered Greece to recognise the professional rights of some 10,000 graduates of the colleges whose owners claimed this was a moral justification.

The previous government put forward legislation and set out the necessary specifications for the process of recognition which would lead to a licence to operate. A committee was established to examine the applications and carry out inspections of the applicants' premises, programmes and the qualifications of the teaching staff.

Three days before the general elections of 4 October which swept the socialist opposition to power, former Education Secretary Aris Spiliotopoulos signed an order recognising 33 of the 40 colleges that had submitted an application - despite the fact the process of assessment had not been completed.

Asked to explain why he had hastened to sign the order instead of leaving it to his successor, Spiliotopoulos claimed he had no choice because the assessment committee at its 29 September meeting had recommended issuing licences subject to a number of considerations. One was that if any applicant did not comply with the regulations the Education Secretary would have the right to rescind the licence at any time.

Diamandopoulou, who had opposed recognition of the colleges while in opposition, rescinded her predecessor's order immediately and ordered a re-examination of all the applicants' files

"These licences," she declared "were issued without the proper inspections required by the relevant legislation so we are going to re-examine all the files. At the same time, one of our priorities is to produce a comprehensive policy in agreement with the EU of the criteria, methods of control and certification for the post-education level to which these colleges clearly belong."

Spiliotopoulos' last minute underhand action angered the Panhellenic Federation of University Teachers Associations as well as the rectors of universities and technological institutes who made an application to the State Council, the highest judicial authority in the country, to declare it unconstitutional.

Federation President Nikos Stavrakakis said: "We are confident we are right and we will pursue this matter until we are finally justified."

Now the college owners are hitting back: they are suing the federation for slander and loss of profits and are also confident they will be ultimately justified.

"The licensing of our colleges ushers a new environment in private higher education and improves the options of all those who are interested in university studies," a spokesman declared.

It will be interesting to see the verdict of the Greek courts and the reaction of the EU if a decision is unfavourable to the colleges.