Government support needed to attract foreign students

For many years now a steady flow of students from Greece have been seeking a tertiary education degree in developed countries such as the US, Germany, France and the UK.

The Greek government acknowledged recently the need to reform the tertiary education system so as to become more attractive to students from abroad. According to a recent OECD report, only 4% of those studying in a Greek tertiary education institute are foreign citizens – way below the average of 8% for OECD countries.

In the past, Greek public tertiary education institutions – universities and technological institutions – have enrolled students from Cyprus and some Arab countries, as a result of bilateral agreements. These have been enlarged to include students from countries of the European Union.

Yet, apart from Cypriots, few others enrol in undergraduate programmes or pursue an MSc or PhD in Greece. The language barrier is a big obstacle to overcome: courses used to be taught exclusively in Greek, even at MSc and PhD level, and students and candidates had to submit their theses in Greek.

Greece, however, is not only a popular tourist destination, but is also popular for student exchanges in the context of the Erasmus programme, funded by the European Union and supported by the State Scholarship Foundation, or IKY.

The number of Erasmus students is expected to grow with the Erasmus+ programme over the period 2014-20. This supports short-term student exchanges for one or two semesters during their undergraduate studies and prior knowledge of Greek has not been a strict requirement for being accepted, while language courses are offered in parallel with studies abroad.

Teaching in English

Recently, Greece has introduced changes that support the internationalisation of higher education. Universities can now adjust their study regulations so PhD or MSc theses can be submitted in English instead of Greek.

The International Hellenic University, or IHU, established in 2005, is the first public university to offer postgraduate programmes taught exclusively in English, while the Technical University of Crete has begun offering a petroleum engineering postgraduate programme taught exclusively in English and also accepts non-EU citizens through IKY scholarships.

Joint postgraduate programmes have been developed by both the Hellenic Open University, which offers a distance learning joint MBA programme with Wroclaw University of Economics in Poland, and the Technological Educational Institute of Western Greece, which offers a joint MSc in petroleum oil and gas management and transportation with Azerbaijan State University of Economics.

A 2011 Greek law allows public universities to establish branches and campuses in other countries. There are already discussions and attempts being made to start operating in countries such as Cyprus and Morocco (Panteion University) and the United Arab Emirates (the Agricultural University of Athens).

Education Minister Professor Andreas Loverdos introduced an amendment last month that allows universities for the first time to establish undergraduate programmes taught in English. Non-EU citizens, however, will have to pay tuition fees.

The first three courses since this amendment will be offered by the University of the Aegean in Rhodes on tourism management, the University of Crete in Rethymnon also on tourism management, and the Democritus University of Thrace in Komotini on classical studies.

The University of the Aegean in Chios and the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki are also preparing new programmes in maritime studies and classics studies respectively.


The landscape of the Greek tertiary education system is evolving. But critics claim the reforms are the result of the government seeking to be released from its constitutional obligation to offer free tertiary education to all Greek citizens.

As if to back the claims, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras announced that article 16 of the constitution guaranteeing free education should be abolished. Meantime, funding for public tertiary institutions was reduced during the Greek financial crisis by more than 67% and private colleges operating in Greece are on the point of being allowed to offer university-level education services.

As a reaction to harsh budget cuts – or as part of a strategic plan for developing and improving their world rankings – Greek public tertiary education institutions are looking to broaden their offerings to international students.

The institutions might be adapting to the new environment but the government needs to do more to support these changes. Reforms beyond the education system are crucial and urgent, such as the introduction of a new legal framework for granting student visas, especially to those outside the Schengen Area.

The benefits of institutional decisions will then be felt beyond their campuses. A recent study highlighted the significant contribution that international students make to the overall national economy of France. It remains to be seen if tuition fees are the appropriate means to attract foreign students or if Greece should aim for the more long-term spill-over effects of trained and educated people in the local economy.

Such discussions are already progressing in European countries such as Finland, Norway and Denmark.

Artemios G Voyiatzis holds a PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering and is a Principal Researcher at the Industrial Systems Institute of “Athena” RIC in ICT and Knowledge Technologies in Patras, Greece.