Greek strategy is to step up internationalisation of HE

A conference on the UK-Greece Strategic Partnership in Education held on 21 March is just the latest in Greece’s organised and coordinated efforts to internationalise its academic institutions and enhance the global reputation of its higher education sector.

The aim of the partnership is for British and Greek universities to team up and design joint degree programmes that will be certified by both institutions.

Most will be postgraduate programmes and they are expected to attract not just Greek students, but also students from the Balkans and Mediterranean and Asian countries such as China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

In addition to working with United Kingdom universities, Greek higher education institutions are working in partnership with universities in the European Union, the United States and China and are now establishing collaborations with India.

This article is part of a series on Internationalising HE in Greece published by University World News in partnership with Study in Greece. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

“Greek higher education is trying to reposition itself in the global higher education landscape through internationalisation to help the modernisation of Greece,” says Professor Christos Michalakelis, president and co-founder of Study in Greece, which has been operating since 2015 and is a key driver of the government’s strategy.

Study in Greece has wide support from the Greek government, with direct backing from the ministries of foreign affairs, education and religious affairs, tourism, and culture and sports. Greek embassies and consulates also host a link to the Study in Greece portal on their websites.

Study in Greece’s role is to encourage foreign students and academics to study and work in Greece, highlighting non-Greek language courses (especially English-language studies) at Greek universities.

The project includes MatSiG, a digital platform mapping academic studies offered by Greek universities, educational and cultural organisations, aiming to aid their exchange of information, and to advertise Greek study opportunities to foreign students.

“Study in Greece constitutes the official bridge between the Greek and the international academic community, by facilitating the creation of academic networks as well as by fostering synergies between Greek and foreign university departments in diverse scientific fields,” said a note from the project.

Michalakelis, who is also a professor at the department of informatics and telematics, Harokopio University of Athens, thinks that Greece offers a lot to overseas students and academics and at a competitive cost.

“Greece is a relatively low-cost country that is also a member of the European Union, that provides very good quality studies and the whole spectrum of benefits that a Mediterranean country can offer,” he says.

Under joint degree programmes to be developed between Greek and UK universities, for instance, international students will enjoy the benefits of studying in Greece, while studying for a degree that would have a “British stamp” on it but for lower fees and a lower cost of living, he says.

The quality-of-life bonuses of studying in Greece were highlighted by Kjetil Sundfær, a Norwegian student currently undertaking an MSc in international shipping, finance and management at Athens University of Economics and Business.

His choice of Greece was not just based on the country having an important maritime shipping industry: “I didn’t want to visit abroad just to attend a good quality masters, I also wanted to experience the city that I’d be travelling to. The lifestyle, the sun and the weather, as well as the hospitable and friendly people, are some of the benefits of Greece that are even better than I expected.”

Michalakelis stressed: “Most of all though, in these times of global crisis, and as regards to the tragic war in Ukraine, it is a country that is, above all, safe.”

Moreover, he added that Study in Greece’s goal is not only to promote Greek universities, but to promote Greece as an outward looking and welcoming country in which to live and work.

As regards Russia’s bloody and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Dr Nikos Foroglou, professor of neurosurgery at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, added: “We have the intention to welcome Ukrainian academics as well as students and scientists that might want to look for a safer life in Greece.”

He accepted that in the past Greek society had been more inward looking and was now “much more ready than it used to be in the past in terms of embracing multinationalism and opening its doors to the world. That can only be positive”, he said.

Foroglou said this openness reflected how the country was today more confident about its quality of life and especially its higher education, about which it sometimes in the past had a more negative perception: “I believe that we should be more open in showing Greece to the world, rather than being embarrassed by it,” he said.

In that regard, he stressed the large number of English-language courses that can enable foreign students to witness the excellence of Greek higher education.

Today in Greece, 140 masters degrees and two bachelor degree programmes are taught in English and have so far welcomed 150 international students. Universities offering these courses include the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Athens University of Economics and Business, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, University of Crete, International Hellenic University, University of the Aegean, University of Peloponnese, and the University of Macedonia.

This list may well grow in the coming year, with many Greek universities having already applied for funding and support from the Greek government to create new English-language programmes, which will be ready for students either by the next academic year (2022-23), or the year afterwards (2023-24), said Apostolos Dimitropoulos, secretary general for higher education at the Greek Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs.

Once these programmes start operating, Greece will be hosting approximately 200 English-taught masters degrees and 20 bachelor degrees, covering a wide spectrum of academic subjects, from humanities to medical sciences.

The Aristotle University of Thessaloniki has focused, for instance, on internationalising its bachelor degree course in medicine, opening it for the first time from October 2021 to overseas applicants and already hosting 60 international students, having received almost 1,200 letters of interest.

Foroglou, coordinator of this English-taught course’s steering committee, said: “We are trying to innovate and adapt to the current needs of society. We ask ourselves, what kind of doctors does our society need? We need doctors with empathy for human lives and able to harmonise with the current needs of society.

“We are happy to see that international students, despite being used to different educational systems, have adapted very well to this demanding course. It is a great opportunity for them to learn from world-class academics, inside the classes of this experienced university…”

These developments have followed liberalisation within the Greek higher education system, designed to remove bureaucratic obstacles to the launch and development of courses by Greek universities – via Law 4777/2021, increased protection of academic freedom and universities’ autonomy.

The goal was to give more freedom to universities, enabling them to create new undergraduate and postgraduate degrees as well as summer schools without having to secure permission from the government.

European Union (EU) funding has also helped – for instance Study in Greece announced in August 2020 that €1.2 million (US$1.32 million) in EU partnership agreement funds had been allocated to promote Greece as an educational destination.

Later, Dimitropoulos said Greek higher education has been able to draw on €604 million (US$665 million) allocated from EU loans and grants worth €30 billion, made via Greece’s portion of the EU recovery and resilience plan designed to help EU member states recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The money has helped fund international cooperation initiatives in higher education, generate open-access digital educational material, and organise reception and support services for international students, said the secretary general.

These changes have been needed, said Nikos Kipouridis, an International Hellenic University hospitality and tourism management MA 2020 graduate, who said in his experience some processes on arrival in the country had been “a bit outdated and bureaucratic”.

When he was a student, he said, “the biggest challenge for me and my classmates was the fact that the degree options for English-taught undergraduate and postgraduate courses were very limited.”

He said the availability of English-speaking jobs for graduates seeking to work and remain in Greece after their studies was also limited.

COVID-19 did not help, agreed Theodoros Papaioannou, director of academic affairs at Study in Greece, saying that related lockdowns in Greece and overseas, as elsewhere, had a major impact on the ability of foreign students to travel and leave their country of residence.

It is perhaps noteworthy that Greece is currently absent from the top-10 list of European destinations for studying abroad in a report by international student recruitment publication, as was the case in its 2020 and 2021 assessments.

Dimitropoulos, however, says Greek higher education responded efficiently to the challenges of the pandemic. Within two weeks of the first lockdown (announced 23 March 2020), 96% of Greek higher education programmes had switched to distance learning, with the “remaining 4% being labs that could not be conducted outside of class”.

Papaioannou said that with the resulting improvement in higher education digital systems, Greece opened up its studies to students living abroad and this was “an indirect form of internationalisation…”.

Dimitropoulos thinks that the opening up of Greek higher education will not just help Greece universities but aid the “stability and prosperity of…Southeastern Europe”, with Theodoros adding that collaboration with Balkan and other neighbouring countries is a key goal of Greek higher education policy. Greece already has education cooperation agreements with Serbia, Albania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example.

The ministry is developing cooperation agreements between Greek and US universities, with the National Technical University of Athens hosting a summer school in Greece in cooperation with New York’s Columbia University, and they have agreed to launch joint masters degrees in engineering and applied science.

The University of Athens (its formal name is the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens) has also co-organised a summer school with Harvard University. And Boston University is participating in the international BA in archaeology, history and literature of ancient Greece at the University of Athens.

Looking ahead, the ministry is also “promoting synergies” between higher education institutions in Greece and China, he said.

For that to happen, Greece will certainly need to streamline the bureaucracy and practical difficulties that impede students from visiting and studying in Greece. But Study in Greece and the positive approach of the Greek government indicate that such reforms are achievable and could be delivered.