Cyprus is set to become a centre of learning, says Kate Hughes, but private colleges are feeling left out
Cyprus is in the grip of a drought. Unless there is significant rainfall, existing supplies will not last beyond early 1999.
This is bad news for an economy that relies on tourism, so Cyprus is looking at alternatives to an industry that is not only environmentally damaging but also vulnerable to political tensions in the Middle East.
The favoured alternative is a regional services centre, including facilities for educational excellence. Cyprus's location could be an asset in recruiting students and academics from three continents.
Higher education is provided partly by the university, which opened in 1992. It is state-funded, and there is intense competition for places. Its establishment had been delayed by the competing claims of the Greek and Turkish communities on how it should be constituted - the language of instruction being one very obvious difficulty.
Private colleges have been established to meet the demand for tertiary education for young people who did not have the financial resources to go overseas. These colleges teach in English, recruit internationally, and are flourishing and profitable. Some colleges are recognised by overseas institutions, but they lack formal academic recognition by their own government. There have been various accreditation exercises carried out over the past few years, but the results have been frustrating and inconclusive.
The Cyprus Accreditation Council received the findings of internationally constituted teams and its decisions were released in January 1998, just before the February presidential election. The colleges were dismayed that no programme was unconditionally approved, that certain two-year courses gained only conditional approval, and that decisions on the three-year degree programmes were postponed. Suspicions that the government was curtailing the ambitions of the colleges to protect the university were fuelled.
The government maintained there was no need to protect the university, and there were no objections to the fact that the colleges are profit-making. The sole concern was quality of education.
In a parallel move, the Cyprus Council for the Recognition of Quality in Higher Education (KYSATS) was established to provide equivalence of quality of all degrees conferred by the university with degrees from anywhere in the world. The regulations that govern KYSATS have to pass the Council of Ministers and the House of Representatives, but it has made its influence felt - not least on the Accreditation Council, which felt undermined by a body potentially empowered to accept or reject courses on the grounds of equivalence of quality, even if these courses had previously been granted accredited status.
When the head of the Accreditation Council resigned in June and other resignations followed, it was decided to suspend the processes of accreditation until the situation was clarified.
Students from the university have demonstrated in favour of the implementation of KYSATS.
Cyprus has the world's highest number of graduates per capita, and there is intense competition for jobs with security and status - invariably in the public sector. In occupations such as teaching, the government has a list on which the names of all graduates are placed. Each name slowly moves to the top, and employment follows. In certain over-subscribed subjects, graduates may be over 50 before being appointed.
The situation is exacerbated by graduates from obscure degree-bearing institutions, sometimes in the US, who are entitled to take their place on the list, and proceed to a coveted appointment.
Meanwhile, the private colleges nurse doubts against a system that has delivered them the double whammy of accreditation and equivalence. There is a fear that the powers of KYSATS could be used against their graduates, and possibly against those students who undertake part of their degree in Cyprus and complete it abroad. These degrees are, at present, recognised. There is also the outstanding issue of those courses whose conditional approval is due for re-evaluation next year.
The options of merging the Accreditation Council and KYSATS or placing them under the auspices of a higher body remain, but so does the problem of maintaining the independence of the Accreditation Council.
The proposals for the promotion of educational excellence recommend merging the two bodies. But it is also significant that the private colleges feature in the proposals put forward by this board.
The ultimate irony would be if the republic's educational ambitions were realised by institutions in Northern Cyprus, accredited by visiting panels from Turkey. They teach in English and recruit a great number of students including many from the Turkish mainland. This planned and businesslike expansion is providing an infrastructure conducive to student needs, and may also help in furthering the recognition of the north in the eyes of those who have chosen to study there.
Cyprus's ambitions to become a centre of academic excellence must surely depend on the participation and strengths of all those higher educational institutions that are recognised as embodying merit, value and quality.
The Cyprus government is right to uphold true quality, and the main private colleges are right to hold to their belief in what they are and the value of what they can deliver. The preoccupation with quality does not exclude certain British institutions, which are unofficially regarded as no longer providing the quality that Greek Cypriots have traditionally respected and expected.
Kate Hughes lectures at Kent Institute of Art and Design at Canterbury.