As Greece grapples with reform of secondary schools, higher education has become a constitutional issue, writes Katharine Sarikakis
The public debate in Greece about reforms in secondary schools and the possibility of radical changes in tertiary education has to deal with many parallel issues, with one unquestionably dominating - the possibility of a move towards the establishment of private universities.
According to the Greek constitution, higher education is a public good, a service offered by autonomous and self-governing universities. Private higher education is not allowed. But private and expensive post-secondary schools, many of which cooperate with British and American universities as "campuses", claim to provide a university-equivalent education. These schools are not recognised by the state as universities or as any other institution of an academic or professional level.
To claim indirect recognition of their status as universities, the schools call on a European directive under which professional qualifications recognised in one member state of the European Union are automatically valid in all member states. If their curricula are recognised, for example, by British universities and their students are awarded bachelor degrees, then the Greek state recognises these degrees and therefore the schools themselves.
But this applies only if studies have commenced and been completed in the country of origin of the university and not at one of its campuses in Greece. The minister of education has made clear that higher education is and will remain public.
The problem of these schools has assumed such dimensions that the government has asked the public prosecutor to examine the matter. The popularity of these campuses is not a matter of real choice, since the studies offered are questionable, expensive and useless for someone who wants to work in the public sector. Their popularity is rather an act of desperation that shows the urgent need for the transformation of the Greek education system, not necessarily in the direction of private universities.
In an attempt to tackle the problem at its roots, the government has been considering alternatives to the final school examinations model for entry into higher education. No decision has been made, and the government is reviewing various scenarios to deal with the problem of too many school-leavers competing for too few places in higher education.
The government, however, faces a challenge in raising the high standards of secondary education while reducing the number of A-level subjects. On top of that is the nightmare task of withdrawing religion as a core study subject. This attempt to modernise secondary education will face strong opposition from the church.
The ministry of education has also announced a change in status of the technical institutions of higher education, the equivalent of Britain's former polytechnics, to that of institutes of non-university higher education. The change is broadly similar to the one that took place in Britain in the early 1990s, with the recognition of the polytechnics as universities - but Greece will preserve the distinction between the academic the and vocational.
The first problem is that the constitution does not distinguish between university and non-university higher education: it refers solely to institutions of highest education. In other words, it is conceptually and constitutionally problematic to make a distinction of this nature.
Critics argue that Greece will face the same problems that Britain did - a decrease in state funding of public institutions, an increase of pressure on institutions to recruit more students and a possible, subsequent, fall in standards.
Under the new status, academic staff would have to gain higher research-oriented qualifications such as PhDs. It would also be necessary, according to law, for the technological institutions to be restructured to meet the criteria of research-active (university) institutions. With the lowest expenditure per student in Europe - only 40 per cent of the average of other European Union countries - it is doubtful that even selected departments can meet the criteria to be included on the list of university-equivalent departments.
According to some estimates, the number of Greek university students outside Greece has increased by 300 per cent in the past five years. Even though there is some effort to make higher education more widely available, for example through the Open University, these measures still appear to be less than effective. It is in this market niche that private schools thrive.
The most important factor, however, is the fact that education has become a central issue in negotiations for Greece's second constitutional revision.
This revision is an event of major significance: since democracy was restored in 1975, there has been only one revision of the constitution, in 1985. Greeks have to decide whether to change the basic law that provides for a range of fundamental issues from the definition of the political system of the country, to the system of election for government and the president, or basic rights ranging from guarantees of press freedom to the public nature of higher education.
Katharine Sarikakis teaches international communications at Coventry University.