Strains on a divided island

June 29, 2001

Changes now under way in Cypriot higher education could result in a binary system, argues Kate Hughes.

The University of Cyprus is relatively small, and competition for places is fierce. Home supply cannot meet demand and 23 per cent of Greek Cypriot students elect to study in the United Kingdom.

But things are changing. The university is opening a second campus in Nicosia in 2003 and that same year a second university, formed of local colleges, opens its doors.

The University of Cyprus has a projected target of about 8,000 students for whom it will offer a wider curriculum, including engineering, law, medicine and fine arts.

The republic's second university, to be known as the University of Applied Sciences and Arts, will combine a number of existing public-sector institutions that offer only non-university education. These include a forestry college, a school of nursing, the Higher Hotel and Catering Institute and the Higher Technical Institute.

Besides the University of Cyprus, the colleges that provide degree-level study are private. Since January last year, the government has formally accredited more than 120 programmes offered by the private colleges.

This has caused a political furore. The ministry of education must have been well aware that the government's decision to accredit private institutions would be met with some resentment and opposition from the public sector.

This emanates largely from the strong leftwing, which is deeply protective of the public sector and will not remain silent if it believes the private sector has gained an advantage.

The government decision to enhance the status of some public colleges is, therefore, not unexpected.

In terms of administrative costs, the establishment of the proposed university is relatively low. The proposed constituent colleges are dispersed around the island, but this has advantages in a society that values education so highly.

The youngest candidate in the forthcoming elections, for example, is a Larnaca-based lawyer who has pledged to rejuvenate the fortunes of his town by establishing a university.

There is political will, and perhaps a social need, to enhance the public-sector colleges, but a more obvious solution would be for the existing university to absorb these colleges.

The university has already expressed ambitions to establish a polytechnic, which would make such absorption a logical step.

Closer examination of the history of the public colleges provides an answer as to why the government did not choose this route.

The colleges have always been unequivocally vocational and directed towards the needs of local business and industry.

But, perhaps more crucially, these institutions have always been controlled by the relevant government ministry and the staff have had civil-service status.

The result has been that, by custom or expediency, their organisation has been bureaucratic and their staff have gained the considerable privileges of state employment. Comfortable salaries, generous pensions and an incredibly high level of job security make these positions lucrative, secure and coveted.

After the accreditation of the private colleges, the Higher Technical Institute stepped up its long campaign for degree status and academic autonomy.

But the most vociferous voice in this campaign was that of the students. It seemed that a number of staff preferred unequivocal civil-service status to academic recognition of university status.

When the University of Applied Sciences and Art opens in 2003, it does not seem likely that recruitment to any other institutions will be greatly affected.

Applicants to the new university will probably be those who would have applied to the relevant college anyway. Those students who apply to the University of Cyprus, or who choose to study overseas, will most likely continue to do so.

Any impact on overseas recruitment is more likely to emanate from the expanded University of Cyprus. The new university will have no postgraduate facilities, and this could possibly lead to an increase in postgraduate applications for overseas institutions. The probability of such applications to the UK could rise if the graduation of the first cohort coincides with acceptance of the proposed Cypriot membership of the European Union.

Meanwhile, the stronger of the private colleges proceed to even greater strength. These colleges - always innovative and with a strong domestic and international profile - are well placed to capitalise on their enhanced academic status. It is difficult to see how long they can be denied university status. It would undoubtedly be easier for the government to confer this recognition after the public sector has been seen to be academically enhanced.

The demand for higher education remains high, and the political aspirations for the republic to become an educational centre remain buoyant. There is, as ever, the constant fear of Northern Cyprus - in this instance, of the number and strength of its universities.

Although the new university will provide a second accredited tertiary institution and will increase the number of graduates, its perceived status may be less easy to establish, particularly if the University of Cyprus goes ahead with its own plan to found a polytechnic. The result could well be the effective establishment of a binary system.

Kate Hughes teaches at the School of Fine Art at the Kent Institute of Art and Design.

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