Higher education in the Republic of Cyprus has undergone a long-awaited change with the government accreditation of 118 courses at private tertiary colleges. But the move has been met with mixed reactions.
Twenty-three of the courses are at first-degree level, which until now was the monopoly of the University of Cyprus.
Recognition of any qualification is crucial, especially as a high number of graduates are employed in the public sector. But the change also means more students will be able to obtain their degrees in their home country.
This will inevitably lead to further expansion and diversification by the colleges, offering future students even greater choice. Nicos Peristianis, director of Intercollege, is already looking forward to increased numbers and is exploring the possibility of setting up a medical school.
The first law on accreditation was passed in 1987. Earlier exercises had ended in disappointment and acrimony.
The decision was announced by the minister of education,Ouranios Ioannides, who said he viewed the status of the private colleges from an international perspective.
One of the factors that has previously worked against college accreditation was the desire to protect the University of Cyprus during its early years. It admitted its first students in 1992, and lectures are in Greek, while the private colleges teach in English.
There has long been an ambition for Cyprus to become a centre of educational excellence. But on this divided island the political situation is never far away.
The six universities in the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which teach in English, have accreditation and make a sizeable contribution to the local economy. As such they are an uncomfortably close contender for regional academic excellence.
The decision to increase provision in the southern republic makes sense, particularly as many of the private colleges have proven academic standing and successful links with foreign institutions.
But Christodoulos Cleopas, a former director of higher education, believes the accreditation conveys the erroneous impression that the colleges are universities, which will discourage secondary- school pupils from aspiring to places at universities in Cyprus or Greece or other institutions abroad.
The colleges believe that providing students with an option to study at home rather than at the University of Cyprus, whose applications are heavily over-subscribed, is a positive move. It will also benefit those parents who are unwilling, or unable, to afford the extensive capital outlay that foreign study inevitably entails.
At present, students at the University of Cyprus and other recognised institutions abroad, receive an annual grant of CPounds 1,000 (Pounds 1,100). In addition, their parents have an increased annual tax allowance of CPounds 500.
The colleges now expect these benefits to be extended to their students. If this financial assistance is made available to all, at least 4,000 more students would benefit. The move would cost the government about CPounds 5 million a year and will undoubtedly prove controversial.
The minister of education has shown himself to be favourably disposed towards the private colleges, but the decision to extend the funding to all students will ultimately rest with those responsible for public expenditure.