Grexit – Another lost opportunity for Greek higher education?

'Grexit' is probably among Google’s top searches these days. The heat has returned to Greece and the scenario for a possible exit from the Eurozone is now widely discussed. How does this relate to Greek higher education?

For many years, the Greeks have been trapped in an illusion, where they considered the role of the government to be that of a deus ex machina – expected to intervene in every facet and problem of everyday life and to provide a solution.

Some examples of this include the reassurance of high rates of employment, social mobility and the safety net of the welfare state. But as the ongoing debt crisis reveals, something went wrong.

Political opportunism coupled with clientelism led to a Greek travesty of Keynesianism that has slowly but steadily been transformed into a social and economic crisis.

Since the early 1980s the political system in Greece has used public spending to attract voters by offering them jobs in the public sector. This meant the state was consistently in deficit, but most importantly it created a false perception about the role of the government.

At the same time the private sector was considered diabolical and it was felt that as such it had to be rationalised and controlled. To achieve this, a tremendous volume of complex bureaucratic processes was established, which also provided public sector employment for voters.

To make matters worse, in Greece public sector employment is by law permanent for life and public servants are unaccountable to their superiors, which means that it is almost impossible to sack someone due to low performance or even corruption.

Higher education is an example

Greek higher education probably illustrates best the wrongdoings and the work ethics of the Greek public sector. For years, small but powerful majorities have prevented the modernisation of higher education, maintaining instead a system that is governed by nepotism and vested interests.

It is significant that the OECD, in a 2011 report about Greek education, commented that a great challenge for higher education policy-making was the limited ability of the government to control the system and implement reforms.

Greece has been left behind in several areas that are today considered key in the modern, globalised higher education environment.

Issues like international student mobility, internationalisation, joint research, partnerships with industry, alternative sources of income, and the recognition of professional qualifications are only some of the problematic areas for Greece.

It is significant that Greece has not yet fully implemented a National Qualifications Framework, despite the fact that this had been trialled and a website on it set up. Also, according to the Hellenic Quality Assurance Agency, there are problems in the implementation of internal and external quality assurance evaluations of Greek higher education institutions.

The OECD, in its education report, identified a number of problems including: lack of accountability; extreme political intervention; and lack of consistent data and evidence, which are necessary for the appraisal and management of higher education institutions.

According to the recent report by Universitas 21, the Greek higher education system is among those with the least favourable regulatory environment.

To make matters worse, as in most areas of the Greek economy and indeed Greek society, there has been ongoing inconsistency between the establishment and implementation of laws in higher education.

Higher education reform

In 2011, in an effort to modernise and simplify the complex legal framework in Greece, a new law (legal framework) for higher education was introduced by then minister Anna Diamantopoulou and was voted through by two-thirds of the Greek parliament.

This legal framework introduced a range of breakthrough reforms that were aligned with public opinion and with suggestions made by international bodies such as the OECD and the International Committee on Higher Education in Greece.

At the time, I argued that the debt crisis seemed to act as a catalyst for change and for the implementation of reforms in the Greek higher education system. Unfortunately, following the results of recent elections, implementation of this new law has been postponed.

Alexis Tsipras, leader of the hard-left SIRIZA coalition, met with the Council of Rectors immediately after the inconclusive May election to confirm their agreement to cancel the higher education legislation if he becomes prime minister following fresh elections this month.

This satisfies most rectors, who fiercely oppose implementation of the new law.

This is because among the core reforms of the legal framework is a change in the election process of rectors. The new legal framework introduces a council responsible for appointing rectors and consisting of internal and external members.

Under the current system rectors are elected by the vote of students (who have 80% weighting) and students in higher education institutions represent political parties. This system has been heavily criticised for promoting corruption and unethical dealings between academics and students.

Now, rectors who were elected under the old system are celebrating postponement of the reforms and announcing that the new legal framework is ‘dead’.

It is a paradox that prominent academics in a country that claims to be the birthplace of democracy consider a valid law to be non-applicable because it prejudices their vested interests.

It is obvious that many Greeks are now backing SIRIZA in an effort to maintain their existing privileges within the corrupt and inefficient structures of the Greek public sector, including higher education.

SIRIZA promises an ‘easy ride’ out of the crisis by replicating a similar policy to the one that led to existing problems. Amid the current political uncertainty and the expectation of an ‘easy ride’ or a European deus ex machina (that is, in the form of Eurobonds), no reforms are taking place anywhere in the Greek public sector, including higher education.

Impact of an exit

A possible Grexit will affect higher education in a number of ways.

Increased brain drain and closure of universities due to insufficient funding will be some of the immediate short-term implications. However, more important is the loss of a unique opportunity to implement long-awaited reforms.

For me, the forthcoming elections will be primarily about whether Greeks continue to support the illusion of the ‘easy ride’ and-or the hope for European intervention, which will turn out to be far more painful than reforming and modernising the Greek public sector.

Most Greeks agree that corruption, vested interests and injustice are the main reasons for the ongoing crisis; but very few, including the politicians, are ready to roll up their sleeves and implement the substantial reforms needed – and this includes people in higher education.

* Vangelis Tsiligiris is college principal of MBS College in Greece and a PhD candidate at Birmingham City University in the UK.