Higher education faces threat from private colleges

Free state higher education is under threat as a result of action taken by Education Secretary Andreas Loverdos who unexpectedly tabled an amendment to the research and development bill currently being debated in the Greek Parliament.

Under the bill, titles awarded by the so-called private ‘colleges’ would be recognised as bachelor and masters degrees provided they were approved by an international accreditation organisation.

Academics, trade unions, students and parents say that with the state universities having suffered a 67% cut in their funding, their ability to provide quality education will wane, their degrees will be downgraded, and this will give an unfair advantage to the private universities, should they be allowed to operate.

The latest move is a step forward from the Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ announcement that article 16 of the Greek constitution would be abolished, opening the way for the establishment of private universities. Under the constitution, higher education is the exclusive domain of the state and it is provided free to all Greek citizens.

Loverdos’ predecessor Konstantinos Arvanitopoulos last year, in flagrant violation of the constitution, allowed qualifications issued in third countries – mainly from former East Germany – to be recognised as valid in Greece.

The Loverdos amendment is intended to allow American colleges to operate in Greece without the necessity to make complicated franchise agreements. It is widely believed that this is the culmination of pressure on Loverdos and Arvanitopoulos by the American embassy which has a long history of intervention in Greek politics.

The amendment voted on by the parliament states that “colleges of non-typical post-secondary education and training whose study programmes lead to a bachelor degree of three years’ duration or a postgraduate masters degree [are to be included in higher education] provided these programmes have been accredited by an international accreditation organisation”.

This would make private higher education a simple matter while the private colleges that would be immediately favoured are American colleges Deree and ALBA in Athens and Anatolia in Thessaloniki.

Also included in the amendment is that the international accreditation organisations whose degrees would be recognised in Greece are those in which “Greek universities are participating in an equitable manner”.

Although still a relatively young man, Loverdos, a professor of law, is a remnant of the powerful Panhellenic Socialist, or PASOK, movement founded by Andreas Papandreou last century – now a junior partner in the coalition government led by the conservative New Democracy Party.

Once close to the current deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Evangelos Venizelos, Loverdos resigned from the party, formed his own, only to return and support the government.

As health minister in 2012, Loverdos set the foundations for severe cuts in public health, while also becoming notorious because he did not hesitate to expose women suffering from HIV to public ridicule – an act which earned him and the country international condemnation.

His present ambition is to deliver education into the hands of private investors and make single schools individually-financed private units.

Academics reacted sharply to Loverdos’ expedient approach to an issue of primary importance to the Greek people. The dean’s office of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki issued a statement claiming the amendment was unconstitutional because it overlooked the principle of equality.

It also states that students of the colleges are not selected by Panhellenic examinations; the colleges themselves have not been assessed by the independent Quality Assurance and Accreditation Agency which assesses all the Greek state universities and their study programmes; and the colleges operate exclusively as study centres without any research work, which is important for academic teaching.

The statement also notes that teaching staff in the colleges are either temporary or hourly-paid teachers and could not be considered to be on a par with those in the state universities. Not only are the latter academics selected following rigorous procedures but they possess high academic qualifications and are subjected to continuous assessment.

The statement was supported by a large number of other organisations and individual teaching staff, students and members of the public.