Bridge over troubled water

March 19, 1999

Kate Hughes looks at the common aspirations that unite Cyprus despite its geographical and political divide

If history had been kinder to Cyprus, the establishment of a university in Nicosia in the 1930s might have averted the fatal differences that ultimately split the island. Such an institution may well have forced the issues of nationalism and multi-ethnicity into a structured education framework that would have forced political leaders from both communities to acknowledge and accommodate problems before the gaps became irreconcilable. Instead, both sides inherited a bitter legacy that permeated society, including education.

The geographic and ideological separation of Cyprus is well into its second decade, but, regardless of the continuing divide, there are undoubtedly concerns and aspirations that, although not shared, are common to both sides. Higher education is high on this agenda. It is a safe assumption that few, if any, populations reach the level of educational activity evident throughout this divided island.

This situation is not without irony, because some of the seeds of the present conflict were sown in 1571 when Ottoman law restored full political and secular powers to the Greek Orthodox archbishop, thus ensuring that education played a vital role in the preservation of Hellenic culture. The subsequent rise of Greek nationalism in the 19th century drew the Ottoman state into direct conflict with the Greek Orthodox church, precipitating the repressive measures that destroyed or deeply embittered relations between the Christian and Muslim communities and gave rise to the present situation.

The 1960 constitution, which established Cypriot independence, gave separate responsibility for education to both communities, and because emigration or education were traditionally the only ladders of opportunity, there were discussions about founding a university. These plans foundered because of ethnic differences, but after 1974 this, at least, was not a problem for either side. The demand for tertiary education in the republic of Cyprus was initially met by private colleges that teach in English. These are flourishing, although they are still without formal government accreditation. In 1992, the University of Cyprus was hailed as representing "a focal point in the Mediterranean".

The troubled and varied history of Cyprus, its attraction as a holiday resort, a centre for off-shore banking and as a listening post in the Middle East all derive from an extraordinary geographical location at the junction of three continents. This location is also conducive to becoming a regional focus of educational excellence.

A possible obstruction to these ambitions in the south could be the university's language of instruction, Greek. In the north, although the government is denied official recognition (except from Turkey), educational establishments are recognised and students receive British Council grants and Fulbright awards.

The largest institution in Northern Cyprus is the Eastern Mediterranean University, which was founded in 1979 and has well over 11,000 students and, significantly, English is the medium of instruction. This was not an easy decision, but it was justified as a reflection of Cyprus's traditional role as the bridge between eastern and western culture. It also facilitated the demand for English-language instruction that was created after the demise of institutions such as the American University in Beirut and the religious upheavals that have altered education in the Middle East.

The universities in the north are established by the state, have government-appointed trustees, but are semi-private. Students are recruited from the Middle East, but most come from mainland Turkey. Besides six smaller universities established on the same basis as UEM, there are five private colleges that all have government recognition.

Not all these establishments recruit to capacity, and the requirement that the students' level of English is high enough to absorb degree-level teaching results in a high dropout rate. Yet these institutions provide access and incentives to students who would otherwise be denied this opportunity. A further inducement for the beleaguered government of the north to encourage tertiary education is economic.

Turkish Cypriot academics have calculated that in 1994-95 overseas students, and their visiting relatives, were responsible for aggregate expenditure equivalent to 11.59 per cent of gross national product. When the multiplier effect is taken into consideration this was estimated to be the equivalent of 19.99 per cent. Even if these estimates are excessive, higher education has a huge impact on the Northern Cyprus economy and this might explain the readiness with which academic recognition is conferred.

In contrast, in the Republic of Cyprus the private colleges are still waiting for government recognition. Circumstances are perhaps more favourable with the appointment of a new minister of education, Ouranios Ioannides. He fully supports a government policy document that proposes the establishment of a world-class tertiary education centre, not excluding private colleges.

Mr Ioannides is also planning to change the school curriculum so that extra lessons are not required for entry to Cyprus University and those in Greece.

There have been reservations about the proposals, particularly as similar ones in Greece have led to student protest in the past two months. But if implemented, they will increase access, and paradoxically come close to the system in the north. An assessment of the provision and aspirations of higher education throughout all Cyprus might be one contribution to a final and lasting settlement.

Kate Hughes lectures at the Kent Institute of Art & Design, Canterbury.

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