PRIVATE colleges in Cyprus are dismayed at an education ministry decision to refuse them degree-awarding powers despite positive academic reports.
The colleges, established to meet demand during the years of post-independence affluence when ethnic differences precluded the establishment of a national university, have expanded and prospered.
In 1993, one year after the publicly funded and long awaited University of Cyprus opened, the government ruled that degrees from the colleges would not be recognised unless the colleges were formally accredited.
Suspicions that the government might be nurturing the university, which teaches in Greek, at the expense of private colleges were fuelled after an unsuccessful accreditation bid in 1994.
The larger private colleges had looked forward to sharing academic recognition with the university, regulating their established links with overseas institutions, and extending recruitment of overseas students, who are drawn to Cyprus because of its location, and to the private colleges in particular because they teach in English.
After a political uproar, the president intervened. But to the colleges' dismay a further accreditation exercise, which has just been completed, has produced another largely negative outcome.
The colleges had been heartened by the fact that the accreditation team was not predominantly from institutions in Greece, which are suspected of being unsympathetic to the private sector, or the University of Cyprus, which is suspected of self-interest.
Despite their insistence that they are too established to be harmed by the ministry's refusal to recognise their degrees, the private colleges feel under threat. Overseas recruitment, although boosted by numbers from the former Soviet Republic, is always uncertain and successful accession to the European Union will make the United Kingdom and other European destinations a more economic proposition for many families.
Spurred by reservations over colleges' profit-making activities, the government has blocked fee increases for two years. Any rise after that must be approved. This puts an added burden on colleges attempting to improve library provision and research facilities.
For two colleges the delay in formal academic recognition is particularly frustrating. Cyprus College and Intercollege are planning to amalgamate, creating a body of sufficient size potentially to assume private university status. But the new institution's status and prospects would be greatly enhanced if it had an official academic blessing.
The private colleges maintain that they are established, creditable and credible and plan to take court action against the decision.
The withholding of accredited status may be justified on academic or institutional grounds, but it could also be a relatively short-sighted exercise which, by curtailing educational expansion, might well confound the republic's dream of becoming the intellectual hub of the Middle East.
This policy may also inadvertently boost recruitment to Northern Cyprus, where institutions have little difficulty in securing academic recognition from Turkey, and can therefore offer potential students courses with accredited status.
Education is shaped and influenced by the problem of a divided island. In recent months a university lecturer has been castigated for sharing an overseas conference platform with an academic from Northern Cyprus, thereby, so the argument goes, tacitly acknowledging recognition of the illegal regime.