Nostos address: Greece's reformers call students home

Minister appeals for Greeks studying overseas to return to revamped academy. Hannah Fearn writes

March 3, 2011

Efforts are being made to lure back the Greek student diaspora as the government attempts to reform the country's higher education system.

Anna Diamantopoulou, minister for education, lifelong learning and religious affairs, told students and academics at an event in London last month that it was her "dream" to see students returning to Greece as universities and job prospects improve.

"I would like to speak to the minds and hearts of the Greek students among us," she said. "I would like to send you a clear message: you have felt the need to pursue education beyond the borders of our country, but Greece is a country that belongs to you as well.

"It is our responsibility as a government to provide you with an opportunity."

Appealing to students' patriotism, she added that it was up to them to "save our country's future" after last year's financial crisis.

Ms Diamantopoulou said the government was committed to passing legislation to overhaul the country's entire education system, including its universities.

Greece's higher education reforms include the introduction of rigorous governance systems, new teaching methods, an evaluation and appraisal programme for the sector and "tuning" institutions towards economic and social priorities, she told an audience at the London School of Economics.

Encouraging universities to consider market needs has proved controversial, but the government believes it is essential and that its plans have been misunderstood.

"There are so many silly things said around these reforms - that we are going to privatise our universities, that we are going to have fees at our universities," Ms Diamantopoulou said.

"Not at all. We have a very concrete Constitution. The universities are public and there are no fees. But we have to change the way that administration and decision-making takes place in the universities."

Fountain of eternal students

The Greek academy has long been beset by problems, one of which is the length of time that many students spend on their degrees.

According to Elias Katsikas, associate professor of economics at the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki, "once students have succeeded in entering a university department, they have the right to remain there as many years as they wish".

Less than 30 per cent of students complete their studies within the minimum period of four years, and only 71 per cent finish within six years.

Attempts have been made to address this problem in the past.

In 2006, initiatives were introduced to restrict the maximum length of study.

The Greek Ministry of National Education and Religious Affairs' initial plan was to dismiss students once they had overshot the expected completion time of their courses by two years.

However, resistance was so strong that the limit had to be increased to twice the period in which completion was expected, with a limit of eight retakes per examination.

Also in 2006, the ministry mooted changes to the Constitution to permit the creation of private universities, but the reforms had to be abandoned in the face of fierce protests.

Into the mainstream

Ms Diamantopoulou hoped that the current reforms would help to bring Greek universities into the international mainstream. Projects to link the sector with other countries' academies will be introduced, including student-exchange schemes and visiting professorships.

"All these things are necessary to open the channels of communication and place Greece and its students in a global intellectual powerhouse," Ms Diamantopoulou said.

To entice young scholars home, the government is also funding additional postdoctoral and postgraduate programmes.

"We have tried to put in the pipeline projects for young people...to bring them from abroad. I believe that it will be a good move forward for many young people to come back to Greek universities," the minister added.

Efforts are also being made to lure back the "best and brightest" Greek scientists from places such as Silicon Valley in the US through greater investment in research.

The minister said her generation felt "responsible" for the economic and social crisis in Greece but was committed to recovering the situation.

"We have a saying in Greece which we have adopted as a national motto: 'We change education, we change Greece.' There are no conditional ifs and buts in this saying."

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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