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The Greek University: Policy Reforms in Higher Education - Richard Jackson, American College of Thessaloniki

with Richard Jackson, President, American College of Thessaloniki (Greece)

Date & Time

Nov. 14, 2006
9:00am – 10:30am

The Greek University: Policy Reforms in Higher Education - Richard Jackson, American College of Thessaloniki

Remarks by Anatolia President Richard Jackson on
"The Greek University: Policy Reforms in Higher Education" at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, Washington, D.C. November 14

It is an honor for me to be here at the Woodrow Wilson Center today. First, a word about the perspective I bring to the topic of educational reform in Greece.

I served in Athens and Thessaloniki from 1972-77 as an American diplomat and, in my present incarnation, have been back in Greece for seven years as President of Anatolia College in Thessaloniki. Anatolia is a private, non-profit institution which this year celebrates four major anniversaries. First, we are marking 200 years since the August 1806 "Haystack Conference" at Williams College which led to our founding as a congregationalist seminary in Constantinople. As one of the few surviving institutions in continuous operation, I was proud to speak at the Williams commemoration of this event. Secondly, this year marks 120 years service to Greek youth under the name of Anatolia College, for which the Hellenic Postal Service recently issued a commemorative stamp. Third, 2006 marks 85 years since Turkey closed our school gates in Merzefon in Asia Minor and we were invited by Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos to establish the College in Thessaloniki. Venizelos pledged that "we want American Education in Greece" and promoted Thessaloniki as "Greece's most international city." We also mark this year 25 years since the College's return to higher education in the form of the American College of Thessaloniki (ACT) which offers undergraduate and MBA programs with full, stand-alone accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC).

Anatolia today is comprised of three major divisions, Anatolia Elementary School, Anatolia College and its university division, the American College of Thessaloniki (ACT). The Elementary School with 380 students serves as a feeder to the College with strong emphasis on the English language. The College with 1,300 students is arguably the best in Greece and regularly sends its graduates to the top Greek university faculties and to the leading universities of the United States and Britain. ACT draws undergraduate and graduate students from Greece, the Balkans, the United States and some 25 counties. It is also home to the Michael Dukakis Chair in Public Policy and Service, the Lucy Center for Balkan Studies and an ambitious training program in the transport sector under the World Bank.

From this perspective then, and with an undoubted bias towards private, non-profit education, the educational landscape in Greece appears to me to be in acute transition at all levels. Elementary teachers, who are in short supply in Greece, have demonstrated for salary increases of up to 45%, as well as 5% of GDP to be spent on education, clearly an impossibility under EU inflationary limits, and have closed public schools at this level for most of the fall semester. The impact on lives of working parents has been enormous. At the secondary level, there is widespread realization of the need for reform, but at the same time, frustration with conflicting reforms implemented by successive education ministers. A particular issue is the emphasis on rote memory in preparation for country-wide Pan-Hellenic Examinations at the expense of critical thinking and analytic skills. In my experience, no parents anywhere are more ambitious for their children's education as a path to careers and lifetime advancement. On the other hand, this very passion for education has created a system that is inflexible and deprives children of opportunities for socialization, leisure activities and hobbies, or athletics. At Anatolia, for example, students regularly have an intense class schedule from 8:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m., return home for a quick lunch, followed by many additional hours with private tutors or at a cram school or "frontistirio." With the vested interests in this system, as well as the lockstep requirement that every student be on the same page of the same text book on the same day, change is indeed difficult to implement.

Our focus today, however, is on prospects for reform in higher education. Here too the problems are many. Beginning in the 1980's, considerable power at public universities was ceded to students who are today highly politicized and have a determining say in the election of university administrators and retention of faculty. Violence and destruction of property on campuses are increasingly common, but police may not be summoned without the consent of students who regard university asylum as sacrosanct. Campuses thus risk becoming havens for criminal elements. Faced with high youth unemployment in Greece, the so-called "eternal students" are in no hurry to forfeit student benefits and frequently take a decade or more to complete four-year undergraduate programs. Faculty, for their part, are highly resistant to any form of evaluation or quality control through accreditation. Thus, with many exceptions, students and faculty form a strong alliance against reform efforts. All too often, the whipping boy for both is the presumed threat to the status quo of private, non-profit universities.

It is indeed a paradox that, while higher education originated in Greece some 2,500 years ago, there is today a flowering of high-quality, private, non-profit universities next door in Turkey, encouraged by legislation of 1981. The existence of such universities as Koc, Sabanci, Bilgi and Bilkent is due to recognition there of private, non-profit higher education and attractive incentives to encourage educational philanthropy. This, in turn, releases the competitive energies of successful entrepreneurs from which the public benefits through improved higher education. In Greece, there is no shortage of successful entrepreneurs and foundations interested in higher education, but the system holds back their potential contributions.

Greece, as many of you know, is probably the only country whose constitution marginalizes private, non-profit higher education by its requirements in Article 16 that all higher education be free and public. By coincidence, of the dozen or so American universities abroad with full, free-standing US accreditation, two – the American College of Thessaloniki and the American College of Greece (Deree) in Athens – are located in Greece. Both belong to the American Association of International Colleges and Universities (AAICU) and have the same accreditation as Harvard, MIT and the other New England colleges and universities. And yet, since they are not organs of the Greek state, their diplomas are not recognized in Greece, their students do not receive military deferments and their graduates are excluded from non-elective government service or the licensed professions such as law, accounting, engineering, medicine, etc.

Over the years, these restrictions did not impede growth of either institution until 2000 when the 22 Greek public universities (AEIs) and 16 technological institutes (TEI) moved from a restrictive intake of about 25% of Greek high school graduates to virtually open admissions, offering a free public education to all graduates.

Underscoring the global world in which we live, the situation was further complicated by recent controversial and far-reaching reforms in Britain. Clearly the state can no longer afford the cost of Britain's 140 public institutions of higher education, and the Blair Bill of January 2004 imposes for the first time tuition or "top-up fees." Rising over time in several increments, the latter are expected to choke off the nearly 40,000 Greek students who have willingly paid Britain's higher living costs in exchange for free EU public education. The British fully realize the importance of education as a service export and, through adept diplomacy, have mounted a successful campaign in Brussels. The result has been a vote of the European Parliament, a decision by the European Ministerial Competitive Council (with Greece and Germany voting against) and now a formal EU directive (36/2005) requiring that member states provide equal professional rights across the EU by September 2007. This is expected in turn to lead to recognition of the diplomas of branches, affiliates and franchises with headquarters located elsewhere within the European Union. Greece, while appearing to resist the directive, is not expected to put at risk significant EU community support funding for education.

Impact on the ground in Greece of these measures has been the implantation of 43 branches of the lower rungs of Britain's 140 institutions of higher education with a surprising 22 located in Thessaloniki as a presumed magnet for Balkan students. Since these franchises are entirely for profit, they are likely to be disappointed, however, by the inability of the great majority of Balkan students to afford tuition. On the other hand, the typical branch campus is little more than an office suite in a downtown commercial building without libraries, fulltime faculty, a campus or academic infrastructure. The consequence is tuition generally under €3,000 per year for the three-year British program, compared to at least double that amount for a four-year American degree at a full service campus with normal infrastructure. In anticipation of the EU directive going into force, giant billboards have already appeared announcing that such offices are already "recognized by the Greek state," which has to date done little to enforce laws against misrepresentation. The British Council, with offices in Athens and Thessaloniki, has mounted an aggressive and successful promotion campaign for Greek students to attend British institutions, both in the UK and at branches in Greece. By contrast, no such mechanism exists in the United States where international education remains a divided portfolio between the Departments of State, Education and Commerce with frequent differences between them and no single point of contact. While education follows entertainment as a major American service export, there is no Jack Valenti, former head of the Motion Picture Association of America, or his successor Dan Glickman, to lobby effectively for a level playing field. The closest American counterpart to the British Council, the Fulbright Commission, is even prohibited by its regulations from promoting American institutions based outside the United States.

I should distinguish here between academic accreditation and professional licensure, which is the objective of these EU measures and directives in order to ensure the right to work across borders within the EU. Academic accreditation involves different criteria and is a more long-term process. Until now, to be accredited in Greece, an institution simply needed to be a public university whose faculty and staff were Government workers. Basic to reform of higher education, however, is development of a system of accreditation and quality control. A number of boards and committees have been established for this purpose and are in the process of drawing up criteria for evaluation of public higher education for institutions inside and outside Greece. These include an accreditation commission (DOATAP, previously DIKATSA), an independent accreditation committee (AEA), a national education council (ESP), and a Parliamentary Committee on Education. When and if Article 16 of the Constitution is revised permitting the operation in Greece of private, non-profit universities, the general assumption is that the same criteria will be applied to both public and private sectors. On the face of it, this would seem to be a perfectly level playing field.

On closer inspection, however, standards being developed for the public universities are based on the public research university model known in the United States as category 1 research institutions. This would potentially require that, in order to be accredited, an institution would have to offer doctoral degrees in all departments, would have a high, prescribed percentage of faculty with final degrees and would show proof of advanced scientific and scholarly research. Additional elements, unique to Greece, would probably be a strong student voice in appointment of rectors and faculty promotion and common Pan-Hellenic entrance examinations for both public and private institutions. It would be difficult, if not impossible for institutions which encourage faculty research, but whose mission is primarily educational, to achieve recognition in such a system. Whereas in the United States research universities and those with a primarily educational mission complement each other and lead to an efficient student distribution, in Greece and in Europe generally, there remains suspicion, verging on paranoia, of competition from the private sector leading to commercialization or commoditization of higher education. Under such a system, it is unlikely that well-established, non-research institutions such as Williams College or Amherst, for example, would be accredited in Greece.

While reform of higher education is a hot political issue in Greece, it is also part of a larger European dilemma. Some 2,000 institutions operate within the EU on the model of public research universities and compete for EU research funding. The latter is necessarily allocated on a political basis to ensure that universities in each of the 25 member states receive a slice of the pie. Within individual countries, the same phenomenon occurs, and in Greece, for example, each of the 22 public universities and 16 Technological Education Institutes is in turn competing for scarce research funds distributed through the Ministry of Education. The result, relative to Asia or North America, is that there is further erosion of EU competitiveness in research at the university level forcing the corporate sector, as in pharmaceuticals, to carry the full load. Put differently, my own university, Princeton, were it in Europe, would probably not have received funding to develop the fusion nuclear reactor or to unravel the genetic code.

Furthermore, private, non-profit universities with research capacity have clear potential to spur needed technology growth in a country such as Greece. It is no coincidence that MIT was the catalyst for the Massachusetts high-tech corridor, Stanford for Silicon Valley and Duke for the North Carolina Research Triangle – all are private, non-profit institutions. As the interval between research concept and marketing of a finished product has telescoped from years to months to weeks to even days, such institutions, with well-tended ties to the business community have simply been quicker and more efficient in responding to market needs than more cumbersome state institutions. In the process, however, they have improved educational quality in both private and public sectors, both of which benefit from shared research.

Until the outcomes in both professional licensure and accreditation become clear, it is likely that there will continue to be acute controversy and politicization surrounding educational reform in Greece. While there is widespread consensus on the need for reform, divergent interest groups ranging from students to university faculty and frontistiria owners ensure that this will be the case. In the meantime, private, non-profit institutions with American, but not yet Greek accreditation, will continue in a transitional mode, seeking to upgrade faculty credentials and encourage research, while following the educational reform and constitutional revision processes closely. Others may seek European identity as a franchise or affiliate of British institutions in order for graduates to enter the professions on an equal basis. Such a choice, however, comes with a substantial surrender of control and a far-reaching realignment of curriculum away from the American model.
A sub-issue is that of study abroad or other temporary foreign students in Greece. To date, the public universities have generally not been able to customize programs for foreign semester or one-year students. The latter are not well assimilated into the large Greek universities and lack sufficient knowledge of Greek to follow the majority of courses. Equally, the bureaucracy and cost of student visas and residence permits for those staying beyond the maximum three-month tourist period has been a major disincentive, particularly for American students. At the same time, study abroad from the United States has grown 151 % over the past decade, while popular venues have largely been limited to Britain, Spain, Italy, Australia, etc. Thus Italy, for example, receives tens of thousands of American study abroad students and huge annual revenues from this source. By contrast, only some 2,400 American students find their way to Greece annually, although it is an unsurpassed venue for students seeking to get their cultural bearings in a welcoming, but distinctly different culture.

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