Foreign branch campuses could make Greece a global hub of excellence

New legislation opens the way for quality-focused branches to drive up standards across a traditionally public HE sector, says Ianis Matsoukas

April 30, 2024
A Greek colonnade, seen from below
Source: iStock/arsenisspyros

The launch of private universities in the autumn of 2025 will be a pivotal moment in the evolution of Greek higher education, marking a significant pivot away from a traditionally public-driven system.

As part of the change, branches of foreign universities will for the first time be permitted to operate on Greek soil, offering degrees that are both academically and professionally equivalent to those awarded by Greek public universities.

The potential benefits are manifold. Greece already plays a notable role as Europe’s leading provider of UK transnational education and one of the largest globally, primarily through its extensive network of colleges. However, fully fledged foreign university branch campuses offer additional advantages.

They could alleviate the burden on public universities in specific fields, drive economic growth through foreign investment and stem the emigration of Greek youth for educational purposes. By offering programmes in high-demand sectors and, possibly, in multiple languages, these branches could attract a diverse student body, fostering an environment where linguistic skills and intercultural competence are honed.

In addition, the competitive environment fostered by foreign branch campuses is expected to catalyse pedagogical innovation and research excellence, as well as broaden global networking opportunities. The presence of international students and faculty will not only contribute to the local economy but also enhance Greece’s cultural and educational prestige, potentially positioning the country as an international education hub and centre of excellence, attracting top students, academics and researchers.

But that focus on excellence is not being left to chance. Branch campus facilities must undergo a thorough examination by the National Organisation for the Certification of Qualifications and Vocational Guidance (NOCQVG/ΕΟΠΠΕΠ), while their academic and overall operation will be overseen by the National Authority for Higher Education (NAHE/ΕΘΑΑΕ).

Key requirements include a robust physical and technological infrastructure conducive to effective learning and research, highly qualified faculty and curricula that meet the highest international standards. An initial licensing process will be followed by accreditation, with reaccreditation required every five years and performance evaluated annually by NAHE.

The legislation also demands a comprehensive student support system, including mandatory scholarships for 10 per cent of the student body, though tuition fee structures are not stipulated.

The financial and operational groundwork laid out by the new legislation is equally noteworthy. To maintain financial and operational sustainability, the law stipulates that branch campuses must have a bank guarantee of €2 million (£1.7 million) to operate up to three faculties, with an additional €500,000 for each additional faculty. But this requirement is halved for branches established outside the Athens and Thessaloniki regions, promoting educational expansion into diverse geographical areas.

The same is true for the €600,000 licensing fee, which covers the minimum requirement of three faculties per application – though that minimum is waived for universities ranked in the top 20 globally, which have the option to establish just one faculty.

The focus on the long-term financial viability of branches is aimed at avoiding any disruption to students’ educational journeys. While NAHE will not verify the required non-profit status of university branches, economic audits are in place to prevent financial irregularities, and parent institutions will bear the responsibility for course completion in the event of branch closures.

Despite all the aspiration and quality safeguards, there remains a palpable risk that branch campuses might be perceived as inferior alternatives for Greek students who were unable to secure places in public universities. To counter this, it is imperative that these branches not only meet but exceed expectations by offering competitive and attractive programmes capable of attracting talented students.

Additionally, the relatively small size of Greece’s student market could deter prestigious foreign universities from establishing branches. Alternatively, in light of the significant opportunities presented by the new legislation, such institutions may seek to attract not only talented Greek students but also recruit from regions such as the Middle East and Asia, enhancing their global presence and financial stability.

Or they may choose to focus on niche fields that can capitalise on Greece’s unique economic, historical and geographical context; examples include medicine, archaeology, classical studies, sustainable tourism, renewable energy and maritime technologies. However, this focus risks limiting the breadth and appeal of the programmes offered, underscoring the need for a delicate balance between specialisation and broad relevance.

Overseas universities might also be wary of getting embroiled in the legal challenges that are expected to be made by opponents of the legislation when operating licences are issued. Critics contend that the legislation violates the state responsibility for overseeing and providing higher education set out in the Greek constitution, and such cases might proceed all the way to Greece’s supreme administrative court or even the European Court of Justice. Hopefully, the courts will ultimately deliver a progressive interpretation of the constitution that harmonises with the evolving landscape of EU law and modern educational needs.

If they do, and if the new system is implemented carefully and regulated effectively, this policy shift holds substantial promise for Greece. It could enhance education standards, boost the nation’s stature on the world stage and introduce a new brain-gain dynamic, with all the economic benefits that will bring.

Ianis G. Matsoukas is executive director of the Global University Hub at the Metropolitan College of Greece.

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