Although there are now more university places and opportunities for mature
students, Greek education still has a way to go, says Katharine Sarikakis Instead of fees, more free places for higher education in Greece. While ideological disputes and increased political activity worked towards the introduction of university fees in the United Kingdom and Germany, a breeze of different, refreshing air is coming from the south.
In an attempt to satisfy the growing need for education and academic qualifications among the country's young, the Greek government decided to offer more study places in traditional universities throughout the country and to increase those in the one-year-old Open University.
The good news for those who were not successful in the final general examinations, similar to GCSEs, is that the majority will find a place in higher education within the next two years.
After 2001, however, candidates who took their examinations in 1999 or 2000 will not be allowed to try for admission for a second time, "carrying" their grades to a further round of examinations as has been the case until now. For future cohorts there will be one study place for each candidate graduating from full secondary education (at the age of 18).
At the same time, the Open University is adding an array of new courses to its existing ones, providing for 5,300 new students at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Up to the year 2000, 60,000 places are expected to become available, with precedence given to candidates aged 23 to 45.
It is worth noting that there are virtually no mature students in Greek universities, in direct contrast to Britain. Once they leave school there are no opportunities to return to education without going through formal examinations - an exhausting, time-consuming and insecure process.
The creation of the Open University could be the only viable solution to the problem of restricted access to universities and of the limited academic opportunities in Greece. A striking example is the fact that there are only two university departments offering media and communication studies in the country, one of the most popular courses with students throughout Europe.
Since private higher education is against the Basic Law (forbidden by the constitution of the country on the grounds of equal access), developing further the concept of the OU would offer an escape from the increasing problems of an outdated education system, but only if studying is free.
In fact, it will be far from free. It is estimated that completing an undergraduate degree will cost Pounds 3,600. Although the OU is publicised as the 19th institution of higher education in Greece, there is an unresolved legal dispute. The ministry of education approved the project (already under way since 1992), but the country's constitution will have to be revised to accommodate this change. If this happens, then in legal terms the road will open for private universities.
More than 150,000 candidates compete for a limited number of places in higher education. According to the Greek admissions system, in order for a university candidate to enter the school or department of her or his choice, a good examination result is not enough. As admission requirements vary every year according to candidates' performance in the examinations, it is very difficult to predict if candidates with given grades are going to be admitted to the universities or to institutes of technical education, which are also part of tertiary-level education in Greece.
But the number of admissions remains relatively stable every year, excluding thousands of would-be students from higher education. This is still one of the main reasons why so many Greek students study in universities outside the country, in Europe and the United States, with the most favoured countries being the UK, Germany and Italy.
Parents who can afford the additional costs of studying abroad (including fees of Pounds 6,000 plus a year, increased living costs, for example to pay for flights home, not to mention possible preparatory language courses) can at least offer their children the opportunity to gain vital qualifications.
However, those families who cannot afford the astronomic costs of higher education can do very little, and, indeed, neither can the state. Private universities, sanctioned by the Greek supreme court in 1988 if they are run as charities, despite the conflict with the constitution, offer programmes in various disciplines as an alternative to the public higher education institutions, but at extremely high fees.
To make things worse, none of the private institutions offering degrees, often in collaboration with foreign universities, enjoys official approval for its programmes or recognition of its degrees by the Greek state.
Therefore, not only is there a heavy financial burden for those seeking education in the old-fashioned sense, but also the uncertainty over the quality of the courses offered by these institutions - a risk that many families are willing to take. At the end of the day it seems better to have a questionable degree than no qualification at all.
The Greek educational system has undergone innumerable changes in the past seven years, particularly at secondary level. Several methods of assessing student performance, changes in the form and content of national general examinations, study directions and classification have been applied.
Almost every other school generation faces reforms. Very few of these changes have really affected higher education institutions themselves. They have also failed to resolve the core of the problem: insufficient funding and centralised, bureaucratic administration. Katharine Sarikakis lectures at
Coventry School of Art and Design,