Cyprus's flourishing private colleges are locked in dispute with government over accreditation of degree courses.
After independence from Britain in 1960 the uneasy relationship between the Greek and Turkish communities inhibited the establishment of a national inter-communal university and, therefore private colleges began to quietly grow and flourish. Many went on to form largely unregulated links with overseas institutions, some of which recognised Cypriot qualifications even to the extent of allowing students access to postgraduate programmes.
There was little serious interest in accrediting these colleges until the University of Cyprus, inaugurated in October 1992, became a definite and imminent possibility. In 1987 the first law was passed detailing the registration and accreditation of tertiary colleges and in 1991 a second law was passed and institutions registered.
In October 1993 accreditation regulations controversially stipulated that a degree awarded by a private college would only be recognised if the corresponding programme had been accredited. Of the 21 colleges that initially registered, seven went forward and submitted certain courses for accreditation, on the understanding that until they had this recognition "any reference to recognised degrees or diplomas awarded by the above registered Private Schools of Tertiary Education in Cyprus is meaningless".
Equally controversial was the decision that students who did part of their degree programme at an unaccredited Cypriot institution and the rest at a recognised institution abroad would not have their degree validated in Cyprus.
As the state is the largest single employer in Cyprus this hits hard. The ruling also affected colleges' international relations. Second-year entry to a link university, often offered as an incentive, was no longer attractive, or in some instances not even viable.
Many private institutions chose publicly to interpret the legislation as an attempt to diminish foreign influence and enhance the stature of Cypriot education, but many privately conceded it could also be seen as a definite move to protect the University of Cyprus.
This suspicion was increased by the composition of the specialist panels, drawn largely from the University of Cyprus and institutions in Greece. It was said the University of Cyprus was not willing to participate in a spirit of equality and shared academic concerns and aspirations.
After much debate it was decided that the language of instruction of the University of Cyprus should be Greek in line with other national universities. This has led to unacknowledged resentment towards the colleges because they are not constrained by it and widely use English as the language of instruction, helping graduates to succeed in a wider international market.
By autumn 1994, the seven colleges that applied for accreditation received interim reports which led them to believe that they had been grossly misrepresented and inspired an immediate lobby of the parliament.
Then in January 1995 details of the accreditation panel discussions were leaked on a local television channel, and the fears of the private colleges were publicly substantiated. The official outcome was that no BA courses were recognised although two masters courses were, along with nine higher diploma courses from various colleges.
A crisis meeting between the ministry of education and the college owners reached deadlock. The college owners made it clear that they would continue to seek accreditation, while the ministry of education said that the results could not be reversed.
President Glatcos Clerides sought to defuse the situation by assuring students that degrees awarded by foreign institutions to Cypriot students who had previously studied at higher education institutions in Cyprus would be recognised. He also proposed legislation acknowledging the validity of the degrees and diplomas from private colleges, albeit at a lower level.
But these moves were overtaken by the publication of the results of the accreditation exercise. The private colleges appointed as their legal representative Michalakis Triantafyllides, attorney general at the time the plans were decided, who maintained that the creation of the accreditation board was illegal, and its findings therefore null and void. Four members of the accreditation board, including its chairman, have resigned to clear the way for the ministry to make another attempt at accreditation. The ministry's director of higher education, Christodoulos Cleopas, has promptly recommended the formation of a five-member committee responsible for the evaluation and recognition of tertiary education.
This may go some way to stabilising a situation which is leading to increased intransigence on one side, and short-term damage limitation on the other. But the deep underlying problem of ministerial involvement still remains.
The rapid growth of the tertiary sector, and the covert uncertainties imposed by the unique international status of the Republic of Cyprus has probably made government involvement inevitable. Whatever bodies are set up to adjudicate or mediate they are now faced with a vociferous lobby from the private colleges, who believe that their interests and needs have not been acknowledged or considered.
They are confident that their courses deserve to be accredited, and point to their expansion, achievements, and the international reputation of their students and their institutions.
Much of this approbation has come from British and United States universities which are anxious to continue to nurture their relationships with the Cypriot colleges. There is a belief, as yet somewhat vague, that the support and approval of the international academic community can be brought to bear on the the ministry.
In contrast colleges in Northern Cyprus, which also teach in English, have had little difficulty in gaining official recognition from the Turkish government, can style themselves as universities, and attract students from the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent.
The experience of accreditation has, so far, been one of, at best, uncertainty and increasingly and at worst, acrimony. What does seem evident is that because of this situation many students will continue to complete their higher education abroad.
Senior lecturer in cultural studies at the Kent Institute of Art and Design.