Agency heralds new era for HE internationalisation drive

The recent establishment of ‘Study in Greece’ (SiG) as a national agency supported by the Greek state is the latest step in an ongoing process to unlock a world of educational possibilities and deepen international collaboration to revitalise higher education in the country.

This recognition of SiG has reflected its success in attracting overseas students worldwide, staging winter and summer courses, promoting and supporting the creation of research projects and joint and dual degrees in collaboration with foreign universities, and establishing fruitful partnerships with quality American higher education institutions.

“No longer just a project, but a national agency – consisting of representatives of all 24 Greek public universities, backed and funded by the Greek Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, SiG is entering a new era regarding the repositioning of Greece in the international education landscape and rebranding of the country as a study abroad destination,” Professor Dr Christos Michalakelis co-founder and president of SiG told University World News.

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.

This latest phase in Greece’s move to catalyse the internationalisation of higher education comes after the successful Pharos Summit on Greek-US Collaboration in Higher Education, staged in November 2022.

It marked a milestone in Greece’s collaboration with US higher education institutions through the International Institute of Education’s International Academic Partnership Program (IAPP), bringing together representatives from 30 American and the 24 Greek universities, fostering synergies, developing partnerships, and deepening existing collaborations.

Holistic approach to internationalisation

The personal interest and willingness of officials at the Greek Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs to adopt a holistic approach regarding the internationalisation of Greek higher education has helped move these initiatives forward, said Michalakelis.

“The minister, Niki Kerameus, and the secretary-general for higher education, Apostolis Dimitropoulos, decided to include the creation of an organisation that will guarantee the continuation of the internationalisation initiatives in the latest legislation for higher education (Law 4957/22, article 293),” he said.

Moreover, the ministry has ensured funding from the forthcoming European Union development fund ESPA to support the operation of SiG, at least until it can be self-sustainable. SIG has a nine-member board of directors, and they are already seeking other funding mechanisms to ensure the viability of the organisation.

This will help maintain the longstanding academic relationship between the United States and Greece.

Thousands of students, faculty, and staff have participated in academic exchanges through programmes such as College Year in Athens and Fulbright Greece, fostering cultural understanding and serving as ambassadors of their respective nations.

Now, the focus is on deepening educational ties and increasing research opportunities for academic mobility, driven not only by governments but also by individual students, faculty, and staff.

Greece-US synergies

Commenting on the Pharos Summit, George Tsunis, the US Ambassador to Greece, told University World News: “The US participants (70) were honoured and grateful to travel to Greece and visit the Greek campuses, and this experience only strengthened everyone’s intention to create and deepen academic partnerships.”

He underlined that Greece is the ninth top ‘study abroad’ destination for US students, while 2,407 Greek students studied in the US in the academic year 2021/2022.

He commented that synergies arose even on the margins of the summit when the University of Athens and Yale University announced a new partnership. Tsunis called the launch of the Columbia Global Center in Athens, “a fantastic investment”, arguing that the Pharos summit opened opportunities to create value and growth in both countries and in the two countries’ respective student and academic communities.

Part of the US focus is driven by the significant Greek academic community in the United States, consisting of thousands of academics spread across the US. According to Michalakelis, Greek academics in the US are eager to contribute towards attracting international students and fostering high-quality internationalisation in Greece.

Additionally, the Greek community in the US offers funding opportunities, including scholarships, for international and exchange programmes.

“It’s an exciting moment in the US-Greek educational relationship,” Tsounis remarked. He affirmed the effectiveness of increased student mobility and deepened educational ties as a powerful tool for people-to-people diplomacy

“Education serves as a top foreign policy priority for both nations, and President [Joe] Biden’s administration is committed to further deepening this strategic partnership. By ensuring students are equipped with the necessary skills to succeed in the workforce, both countries can enhance their security and prosperity,” said the ambassador.

When asked about the prospects of US universities in Greece, Tsounis highlighted partnerships beyond classical studies. Diverse fields will include science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), nutrition, informatics, economics, and more, he said.

Addressing the challenge of study and living costs for Greek students studying in the US, the ambassador acknowledged the structural differences in educational systems and tuition fees.

However, he emphasised the vast array of US institutions, each with distinctive characteristics and financial aid opportunities. Through the institutionalisation of academic partnerships, university leadership can further negotiate scholarships and financial support, ensuring that tuition fees do not hinder students, he said.

Angeliki Tzanetou, associate professor in the department of classics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, added that US and Greek universities “are thinking about ways in which we can make studying in the US possible by lessening the cost of living”.

SiG is aware of the issue, with officials telling University World News they plan to build a funding mechanism to support Greek students in US university programmes, while helping American and other foreign students to study in Greece.

“Into that funding body we intend to involve public entities, such as the [Greek] State Scholarship Foundation, and private foundations, both Greek and international. Fulbright will also have an important role to play,” said Michalakelis.

Aligning systems

Other challenges to tackle include navigating the complexities of aligning Greek and overseas academic standards, calendars, grading systems and student services.

“We need to start with baby steps,” said Alexis Phylactopoulos, president of College Year in Athens, which has for 60 years brought American and Canadian students to Greece, “by having Greek public universities offer short-term semester/summer courses since this is where US educational institutions focus their study abroad”.

Regarding the type of co-degrees awarded, Michalakelis said: “It will depend on the type of degree. For example, in joint programmes, both affiliations will appear on the degree, in dual degrees both subjects, and so on.”

Greek public universities will need to adapt to meet the expectations of their overseas counterparts. This includes regulatory legislation to facilitate the issuance of stay permits for foreign students and ensuring they have access to the same benefits enjoyed by Greek students.

With that in mind, SiG anticipates the creation and operation of international student offices in Greek universities, helping students to integrate into the academic community.

An example of how US-Greece cooperation could roll out can be seen at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, with Tzanetou highlighting how since the beginning of the IAPP Greece collaboration in 2009, her university has signed memoranda of understanding with the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Panteion University, National Technical University of Athens, and Athens University of Economics and Business.

Illinois Urbana-Champaign is now in the process of exploring exchange agreements for students (for example, with Panteion), said Tzanetou. “We were impressed by the scope of opportunities and the rich array of academic and research resources of universities in Greece,” she said.

Her department is hoping to further collaborate with the departments of archaeology and classics at the University of Crete. Moreover, her university is now talking to other Greek universities in the areas of sustainability, nutrition and food security for the purpose of research collaborations and faculty mobility.

Business and action plan

SiG, she said, has played a pivotal role, which will intensify now that it is a national agency, said Tzanetou: “It is a fantastic interlocutor and facilitator for US colleges and universities which are still getting to know the Greek academic landscape.”

Indeed, SiG is currently developing a business and action plan which includes a focus on US collaboration and will include creating a SiG presence worldwide and working with Greek diplomatic missions overseas. SiG is also looking at developing promotional webinars and education fairs across Europe, including in the neighbouring Balkans, Africa, India and Asia.

“Greece is geographically ideally suited to become an educational hub because it is rich in culture and civilization, and it is situated at the crossroads of three continents and religions. Greece has an abundance of academic talent, the climate is mild, the landscape superb, and the people are warm and hospitable.

“All these make Greece attractive. And Athens itself is now a vibrant exciting city full of theatres, art, museums, and culinary adventures,” said Phylactopoulos.

Harvard University has been at the front of this trans-Atlantic work. It has organised study abroad programmes in Greece since 2002 and in 2008 inaugurated an office in Greece, the Center for Hellenic Studies in Greece, based in Nafplio. Since its opening, this office has supported many Harvard-related activities and collaborations with Greek institutions.

New priority

“It is important to point out that conditions have changed now for Greece,” said Nicolas Prevelakis, assistant director of curricular development at Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies, referencing the establishment of SiG as a national agency.

“There are similar initiatives in other countries, but it looks like these are really becoming a priority in Greece, offering way more opportunities and advantages today than the very important ones we all know and expect, which derive mainly from its history and culture,” he said.

“It offers a big advantage and service to the country. For the first time, Greece has a hub that collects and shares information about Greek education abroad,” Prevelakis said of SiG.

“It is very important to have one agency that can collect information (requests, proposals) that comes from foreign universities and then channel it to Greek universities and vice versa. SiG presents existing opportunities for studies in Greece in a very comprehensive manner and has been involved in designing new programmes,” he said.

Both Tzanetou and Prevelakis see in SIG the advantage of presenting all Greek education when representing Greece abroad, taking advantage of Greece’s brand name in education and its attractiveness as an educational destination. That reputation is only likely to strengthen as SiG further promotes Greece higher education worldwide.