Kate Hughes talks of disquiet in Cyprus over private college degrees and the value of UK higher education
The Cypriot stock market is booming and speculation is paying handsome dividends, but parents regard their children's education as a long-term investment divorced from the gambling fever of the markets.
Parents make considerable sacrifices to ensure that their children have access to formal academic qualifications, and the island's private colleges play a key role. The Republic of Cyprus has seven public-sector higher education establishments, ranging from the University of Cyprus to various management institutions and colleges concerned with nursing, forestry and the police. The total number of student enrolments is just under 4,000. In comparison, the private tertiary institutions have just over 6,000 students and would appear to be flourishing.
But the private colleges are engaged in a protracted battle to gain formal academic recognition from the government for their undergraduate degree courses.
The withholding of degree status for private colleges is a serious concern because, in the words of the department of higher and tertiary education, "education for Cypriots is greatly valued and treasured as an ideal". They meet the needs of those students who do not have the necessary qualifications to gain entry to the University of Cyprus, for which there is a very high demand, and of those whose parents cannot or will not send their children abroad to study. At present, a number of students do one or two years in a private college, and then transfer to complete their studies, usually in Britain. The private colleges therefore provide a rich recruiting ground for British universities.
For a long time, there has been some disquiet in the department of education about this practice. The latest ruling is that although degrees obtained in this way before September 1997 will be recognised by the government, those gained after this date will be subject to further scrutiny. The board that will undertake this is known by its Greek acronym, KYSATS, and it has been set up to establish equivalence between the degrees awarded at public universities in Greece and the University of Cyprus with those awarded by other institutions.
This staggeringly ambitious, and potentially cumbersome, enterprise is still in its infancy, but it expects to start its gargantuan task soon. Exactly how this body will accumulate and, more crucial, evaluate this vast amount of information is still not clear, although the internet will play a large role. Criteria will include duration of study, quality, access, examination procedures and the staff's academic standing.
To take an obvious example, the fact that British degree courses are usually three years long instead of the four usual in Greece and Cyprus might be construed as an impediment to British equivalence. The unofficial message from KYSATS, at this stage, is that problems with accredited British institutions are not anticipated.
Meanwhile, private colleges are undergoing more accreditation visits, with recommendations being forwarded to the government. Yet even if the accreditation panels deliver favourable verdicts and recognise some undergraduate programmes, these will, theoretically, still be subject to the attention of KYSATS, although a likely outcome may well be a merger of this body and the accreditation board.
The private colleges have two potentially large obstacles to overcome before their academic future is secured. Those that have accredited diploma courses will still be able to send their students abroad to complete their studies without the status of the resultant qualification being jeopardised.
Those that send students to other institutions after one or two years' study that is not formally accredited by the department of higher and tertiary education may face serious problems, unless this latest round of visits brings recognition. Furthermore, the colleges are not eligible to reapply for accreditation until after two years.
So, the private colleges are still in a state of uncertainty, and there is concealed resentment - against the government that has withheld its recognition (although the government argues that it is upholding quality) and also against the activities of some British institutions whose representatives are paid for every student they recruit.
Private colleges see their students completing their degrees in Britain, although much of the work is done in Cyprus. Furthermore, many of these students are not academically distinguished, but do not appear to experience any difficulty during their final year of study.
The recent rush to recruit Greek Cypriot students after the publication of the latest A-level results has not enhanced the reputation of British education, and it must be said that this perception is gaining strength. Increasingly there is a feeling that British education may not always provide the standard and value that is expected.
A number of parents are beginning to voice their concerns. Their relief that their own children have secured the institution and course of their choice is increasingly tempered by disquieting rumours circulating about lowered standards and what are perceived as inappropriate offers. The depth or substance of these rumours is not always examined, but the perception remains.
Cyprus is a tightly knit community in which information, gossip and speculation is rapidly circulated and evaluated. The propensity to regard education as a commodity may well be a cultural blind spot, but a society that has brought itself to prosperity in just over one generation knows a lot about value for money.
Kate Hughes is a lecturer at the Kent Institute of Art and Design at Canterbury.