GREECE: An expensive free education

Education in Greece is free so no fees are paid by students. Embodied in the country's constitution is that all Greek citizens (and certain foreigners who live and work in the country) are entitled to free education.

Entrance to university is subject to examinations and the process in some respect falsifies free state education. Although education at school is supposed to be available to everyone rich and poor, many parents choose to send their children to private schools which do charge fees.

To get into university, students must sit entrance examinations designed to act as a net to catch the weak students and allow the rest to go forward. The weak students who wish to follow an academic career have to attend additional classes in the many private schools that prepare them for the exams.

The schools operate outside school hours and parents pay high fees. They therefore indirectly subsidise an inadequately-funded state system which, instead of providing a high quality education, helps push students to 'education middle-men' at a high cost.

The absence of a fair and adequate system of grants and scholarships is another reason why "free state education" is so expensive. The centralised place allocation system does not allow students to choose what or where to study and they are often obliged to undertake some irrelevant subject in a far-flung institution far from home

Although Greece is a small country, its 17 universities and more than 30 technological institutes are spread over a huge geographical area (including many islands), often established for local political and economic reasons rather than real academic needs.

In such cases, parents are obliged to bear the high cost of maintenance, including rents, living expenses, entertainment and travel. This is substantial and may be less than the cost of sending their offspring to a foreign university in one of the Balkan countries, or Britain, France, Germany and even the US.

This is an area where the so-called private colleges score quite heavily. They attract students and parents who prefer their children to stay and study at home at a college connected by a franchise to a foreign university. Although they pay fees, these are no higher than the cost of maintaining a student at a state university a long way away.

Lack of adequate funding affects the provision of high-quality, free state education and universities are facing increasingly strong challenges from private interests that see higher education as an area for profitable investment.

While the universities do their best to provide a high-quality education, they find it difficult with inadequate funding. Introducing fees to defray some of their expenses is a thorny subject and would require a change in the constitution.

Nor will public opinion easily accept such a change and no political party, particularly one which likes to call itself socialist even if it is in the government, is ready to confront the huge political cost involved.

What the government can do is starve the universities of necessary finance for expansion and essential research while encouraging private sector investment. The academic excellence of the state universities would then sooner or later be undermined and even eventually lost.

Many academics would feel frustrated in a diminishing state sector and would leave for a more flourishing private system. The students would follow and state universities will shrink.

This is unlikely to happen under the present government. Prime Minister George Papandreou has first-hand knowledge of the problems of education, having twice headed the ministry. Papandreou is not against private universities and sees them as existing "within a strong and adequately funded state university sector".

His government has allocated an additional EUR1 billion for education but where will this money come from? The economic situation is affecting Greece badly, it has a high deficit and level of debt, the money markets are unwilling to lend the government more and there is pressure from Brussels for severe cuts in wages and pensions. Could fees be an ultimate solution?