The ancient students of Greece…and we are not talking Plato

Ten years of study with no sign of a degree points to an academy in crisis. Matthew Reisz reports

October 16, 2010

The universities of the world all trace their origins back to Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum.

Yet a system that allows many students to remain at university for more than a decade and still fail to obtain a degree is just one of the most blatant signs that something is radically wrong with Greek higher education today.

That is the claim of Elias Katsikas, associate professor of economics at the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki, in an article published in the Journal of Further and Higher Education.

Entitled “Elements and symptoms of an ineffective higher education system: evidence from a Greek university”, it draws on data from his own institution to look at the issue of “prolonged student status”, what it is caused by and why it has proved so intractable.

The academic year 2006-07, Professor Katsikas writes, saw two major upheavals in Greece’s higher education sector.

The first related to government plans to change the constitution to permit the creation of private universities, with politicians of both major parties forced to back down after considerable protest. Equally contentious were initiatives “to restrict the maximum time of a student’s stay at a university”.

This was designed to address an academic state of affairs that is highly unusual in the West.

“Once students have succeeded in entering a university department,” Professor Katsikas writes, “they have the right to remain there as many years as they wish.

“There are no rules obliging them to show some progress in each semester or year…[they] have the right to repeat the exams of a course an unlimited number of times, [although this] does not require repeating the course, since, for the overwhelming majority of university studies, attendance is not compulsory.”

This has led to two linked phenomena. One is that less than 30 per cent of registered students complete their studies within the minimum period of four years, and only 71 per cent finish within six years. At one Greek university, the graduation rate after 10 years is still only around 72 per cent.

Furthermore, according to Professor Katsikas, close to 15 per cent of the student body consists of those who have effectively “abandoned their studies and are already in the middle of a professional career [but then] reappear at the university after 10 or 15 years with the intention of completing them”.

Strong resistance to change

When the Ministry of Education attempted reform, its initial plan was to dismiss students from courses expected to last a certain number of years (ranging from four to six in different disciplines) once they had overshot the expected completion time by two years.

Resistance was so strong that the upper time limit had to be watered down to twice the period in which completion was expected, with a limit of eight retakes per examination.

Studying for a longer period of time can be rational if it leads to higher grades and hence better job opportunities or starting salaries.

Yet Professor Katsikas indicates that it does not work out that way in Greece. “Students who finish their studies in four years achieve, on average, a grade of 7.44, while those who complete their degree within six years have an average grade of 6.51”.

This is obviously very expensive. When a student is living away from home, the cost to the family, taking account of lost earnings, is about 10,000 euros (£8,400) a year – roughly half the average per capita national income.

So why do many young Greeks stay at university for so long and still get such poor results?

Professor Katsikas argues that it cannot be a question of sheer ability, since entrance examinations “ensure a high degree of homogeneity among students in the same department”.

Nor does the evidence indicate that it comes down simply to economic factors, with students from poorer families forced to combine their academic work with paid employment. This might explain their extended degrees, but not their poor marks.

A far more likely cause of the dysfunctional link between long-drawn-out periods of study and low grades, suggests Professor Katsikas, is that both are the result of “differences in students’ efforts” – magnified by a framework that gives them virtually no incentive to work hard.

“The most striking characteristic of Greek higher education,” Professor Katsikas writes, “is the identification of the subject with the contents of a specific textbook. The identification takes place through the textbook being offered free of charge to the students and the fact that in most cases its author is the instructor in that subject.

“Greek students are unaware of the concepts of reference sources and related literature. They are judged exclusively according to their performance in the final examinations, [which is] often a function of the level of rote memorisation of the textbook’s contents or the result of a successful attempt to cheat.”

With universities essentially “exam factories”, lectures not compulsory, auditoriums overcrowded and teachers often content to read straight from textbooks that have been given out at the start of the course, it is little wonder that “absenteeism can rise to 90 per cent of the registered students”.

In departments where large classes are common, problems are exacerbated still further. Only the most highly motivated students can flourish in such circumstances.

The majority, Professor Katsikas writes, “are demoralised, lose contact with the subject, and then face difficulties in passing the exams”.

Given that his paper presents a picture of a university system undermined by a deep-seated malaise, where does Professor Katsikas locate the heart of the problem and how could it be solved?

“I describe a teaching and learning process that is not conducive to learning. The problems arise mainly from mass higher education studies. You cannot educate students properly when there are more than 300 of them in the auditorium,” he said.

“The vast majority of our university teachers have been educated abroad and so know what they should be doing, but the large numbers of students make it difficult.

“Changing established practices will not be an easy task. The system finds its equilibrium in a low level of effort from both sides, teachers and students.

“Either the number of departments [representing subjects of study] should increase, in order to reduce the size of classes, or the number of students entering university should be cut drastically. The first option is economically unattainable in the medium term, while the second is not politically feasible,” Professor Katsikas said.

Incentives for academics

Yet even within current constraints, he has a number of practical proposals. Universities should stop handing out books free of charge to students, “not so much because it is an inefficient way of using public resources as because it seriously distorts the process of teaching and learning”.

Instead of refusing to give official recognition to the existence of vast numbers of part-time students, institutions should “separate programmes into part-time and full-time studies and adjust the curricula accordingly. Full-time students should be expected to complete their studies within the time frame envisaged for their degree.”

A final issue is the question of incentives for academics. “We need to intensify the process of evaluation, which was recently introduced in Greece but is proceeding very slowly, and somehow link departmental performance with teachers’ pay,” Professor Katsikas argued.

Particularly at a time of economic crisis, the scale of changes required to streamline Greek higher education presents a formidable challenge. But as long as the universities are full of students who have been there practically since the days of Plato and Aristotle, there can be little doubt that something radical needs to be done.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com

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