English signposts successes on a divided island

January 10, 1997

THE signposts pointing to the University of Cyprus from the Nicosia Hilton are in English, but a foreign visitor is advised to brush up on the Greek alphabet because on campus it is all Greek.

Alternatively, the visitor could ask any one of the 2,000 students for directions, and they would reply in excellent English.

When the university opened in 1992 it was hailed by then president George Vassiliou as a potential "focal point in the Mediterranean", a bi-communal institution serving the needs of all Cypriots and part of a polyethnic educational culture which also looked towards the new Europe.

As an expression of dearly won Greek-Cypriot nationalism, it was decided the language of instruction was to be Greek.

The founding of a national university had been delayed because of the struggle for independence from Britain and then by intercommunal fighting between the Greek and Turkish communities. The Turkish invasion of 1974 brought tragedy and massive economic and social dislocation, but its aftermath allowed the Greek Cypriots to establish their university without the need to confer with, or concede to, the Turkish Cypriots.

The university carried not only the weight of Greek-Cypriot nationality, but also its cultural aspirations on a divided island. Debate about its role has been part of the political agenda for years.

Since the late 1960s a number of private colleges have been founded and flourished. They have formed successful, though largely unregulated, links with overseas institutions. But in 1993 the government passed a law stating that the qualifications awarded by the private colleges would not be recognised unless the institution had official accreditation.

There was a suspicion that these measures were to protect the status of the degree-awarding powers of the new university and ensuing events fuelled this feeling.

Undergraduate degree courses at seven private institutes were refused recognition from government-appointed panels of academics from the University of Cyprus and universities in Greece.

This provoked heated public debate that reverberated to presidential level and led to the decision to run another accreditation exercise later this year. The row proved the robustness of the private colleges, which enjoyed much popular support, not least from parents anxious to ensure the validity of their children's education.

Discussions began in the private colleges about merging to form a larger institution. A feasibility study was financed by the European Union and a few months ago the two most prominent private colleges, Intercollege and Cyprus College, announced that they would merge, in due course to become Intercollege Cyprus.

The institution will have about 3,000 students and is billed as "the university of tomorrow", in other words, the Private University of Cyprus.

Student demand for higher education on the island is high enough to allow the existence of two universities. The University of Cyprus attracts more than 3,000 applications per year for fewer than 500 places.

The private colleges have the advantage that their language of instruction is English which has enabled them to recruit students from the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent and the former Soviet Union. They also compete well against educational institutions in Northern Cyprus that teach in English and enjoy recognition from the Turkish Government.

When Cyprus becomes part of the European Union, an officially recognised English-speaking university will be well placed to take advantage of academic exchanges. The University of Cyprus upholds its commitment to be a truly national university and teach in Greek, but, unlike the Greek universities, recognises that Greek is a minority language with limited publications and therefore provides a number of texts in English.

There is also recognition that when postgraduate provision is established this should be in English because of the lack of primary sources in Greek and the problems of securing postgraduate supervision from solely within the Greek-speaking community.

Greek Cypriot students will continue to study in the United States and Britain and may even go to Britain in greater numbers when Cyprus joins the EU. But higher education is in expansion phase at home.

Kate Hughes is lecturer incultural studies at the KentInstitute of Art and Design.

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