GREECE: Almost magical qualities of number 10

The problems of Greek education in general and higher education in particular are legion. But while the authorities appear lost in personal arguments and jockeying for position, the magical properties of the number 10, the minimum grade for entering university, are provoking the wrath of academics and angry reactions from all sections of the community. Teachers are threatening prolonged industrial action even during the examination period.

Indicative of the situation is a slow-burning conflict between the Secretary of Education Anna Diamantopoulou and her Deputy Giannis Panaretos who is also a university professor.

The latter, said to have the ear of the prime minister, is wont to pursue his own independent policies and this often confuses the academic community and infuriates his immediate superior.

The country if not bankrupt as yet is in a very tight economic stranglehold. It pays two to three times higher interest rates for its loans than any other European Union country. EU solidarity - despite the economic support plan agreed on 25 March - is in complete tatters while the International Monetary Fund conditions will throw the country into a prolonged recession.

Already money for education has been reduced by EUR200 million US$ 256 million) while EUR1 billion promised last year by the education secretary has not materialised and under the circumstances it is unlikely it ever will.

With the approaching Panhellenic Examinations that determine entry to the country's universities, the supposedly magical qualities of the number 10 have assumed metaphysical dimensions. Students in the exams are graded on a scale from 0 to 20 and 10 is the minimum required for entering higher education.

A few years ago, during Marrieta Giannakou's period at the Education Ministry, it was discovered students were being admitted to the various higher education institutions with an average grade of 3 or 4 (well below the average) to fill the places available in the courses offered by the institutions.

Instead of looking for the reasons why students had such low grades, Giannakou's advisers suggested raising the minimum entry point to 10 to ensure at least the minimum requirement was achieved.

Because the standard of the students did not improve the measure remained a technicality.

As a result, in the last few years more than 30,000 students remained outside higher education while many regional universities and technological institutes did not have enough students for their most esoteric courses.

Local communities whose economy is geared to the existence of the higher educational establishments in their areas suffered economically.

The ministry of education leadership then abolished the measure, not because it was anti-pedagogical or because it helped improve the standard of learning or tuition and not even as a result of thorough survey or discussions with the academic community, but simply because it was a pre-election promise.

That was an extremely poor excuse given the present government has forgotten all its other pre-election promises regarding more important things such as wages and pensions.

It could be argued the measure will once again open up higher education to students who were in previous years prevented from attending. That is precisely the point where the argument of most rectors is centred.

They say that now their courses will be inundated with students and, without additional funds, they will be unable to give them the attention they deserve.

Quality in education is not achieved with numerical alchemies. It requires long and sustained work which ought to start from primary education if not before.

Free secondary education needs to be strengthened so as to provide the necessary means for students to progress towards higher education if they so wish and not rely on additional lessons (in private establishments or private lessons often by their own teachers) which make a mockery of 'free state education' and where the cost to parents and students is so high.

Finally it is not a matter of numbers but genuine knowledge delivered by well-informed and caring teachers.