Greece’s education minister takes on EU

The Greek government has permitted organizations that issue degrees under franchise to operate for decades, but it does not recognize those degrees. Now it is facing the European Court. With defeat likely, the government is trying to deal with a political hot potato which has sprung up not long before the next elections by quibbling and without offering persuasive arguments. Middleman European Commissioner for the Internal Market Fritz Bolkestain comments: «The Commission believes that the diplomas awarded in Greece by another member state do not concern education offered by or through Greece but education offered by or through another member state, since the Greek institution which provides the education is simply a middleman without autonomy. It is not the Greek institution that awards diplomas, but rather the university in the other member state. Consequently, if those diplomas refer to professional training in the sense of Directive 89/48, they are covered by that directive,» he explained in one of his letters of warning to the Greek government. The letter was not answered adequately, and Greece has been referred to the European Court, where it runs the risk of incurring a fine. «The Greek Constitution outweighs EU law,» Education Minister Petros Efthymiou told Kathimerini. The government bases its arguments on Article 16 of the constitution, which sets out the public character of tertiary education, and on Article 149 of the Treaty for the European Community, which stipulates that matters concerning education be governed by the national laws of member states, in order to defend its refusal to recognize the institutions and the degrees they offer under franchising arrangements with universities in other countries. But two recent decisions by the European Court found in favor of two Italian women who got degrees by franchise. The Italian state had refused to accept their degrees, using arguments (similar to those of the Greek government), but the ruling was perfectly clear: «Give that non-recognition of the degrees concerns only degrees awarded to Italian nationals, the administrative practice by which certain degrees are not recognized in Italy may deter students and therefore it constitutes a limitation to free establishment.» Greek arguments There are only two points in which the case of the two Italian women differs from that of Greeks and they provide Greece with two arguments. The first is that in Italy non-recognition of degrees is based on administrative practice and not on the country’s constitution (in Italy, private, non-profit universities operate). This brings us back to the argument that the constitution outweighs EU law. Besides, Efthymiou himself considers the issue to be constitutional and says that if Greece wins, it will alter the status quo in the internal European market. The second point is that Greece does not deem the franchises to be «educational institutions.» Here the government, which has allowed such organizations to offer education unhindered, since they come under the Education Ministry, is quibbling. «Given that it allows them to operate under the Education Ministry, it is legalizing them, so it should recognize their degrees on the basis of Directive 89/48. Their policy is schizophrenic,» contends Left Coalition Euro MP Alekos Alavanos, who is familiar with the issue. «Bolkestain has said that the government must recognize the degrees, because the directive does not set conditions as to where and how the studies take place. It only sets conditions as to the duration of the studies,» he said. This is why equally well-informed PASOK Euro MP Ioannis Koukiadis tried to get a clearer amendment passed (though it was not supported by the majority of the People’s Party) «because there is a problem of interpretation with the existing guideline,» he told Kathimerini. The Koukiadis amendment states that the state is not obliged to recognize professional training diplomas awarded through franchise arrangements after studies at institutions which are not recognized in the reception country. The Greek government is also accountable because Greek Presidential Decree 165/2000, which incorporates Directive 89/48, sets terms not foreseen in the directive, such as Article 10 Paragraph 3. On the basis of that article, the Council for the Recognition of Professional Parity of Tertiary Education Degrees (which was set up to deal with foreign degrees) is responsible for judging «whether the education institution at which the applicant for recognition did his or her professional training belongs to tertiary education.» Universities react Greek universities oppose the prospect of recognition of degrees awarded under franchise. Athens University Dean Giorgos Babiniotis was clear on the subject: «I believe that public universities are an achievement of Greek society, which is protected by the constitution and must not be undermined by anything or anyone. The Greek State must cooperate with the universities to deal with the major problem of a European Court decision which introduces commercial criteria into the field of higher education.» What form can this cooperation take? How are the Greek universities involved? «It is a pity that so far the authorities have not monitored the existence and operation of the franchises. If that had been done by the Education Ministry and not the Trade Ministry on the basis of the criteria for higher education, it would certainly have deterred the aspirations of certain such centers of becoming institutes of tertiary education from one day to the next,» said Babiniotis. «Greek universities,» he added, «can describe with clarity the requirements, criteria and whatever else comprises higher education. Even if we accept that the directive applies, this leaves unresolved the matter of infrastructure, the qualifications of the teachers and the general level of education being offered by the franchises. They have never been inspected by the Education Ministry.» Babiniotis believes that «abolition of the Panhellenic university entrance exams and direct access of candidates to Greek universities, once the latter have been boosted with infrastructure and teaching staff, as I have argued in the past in Kathimerini, would be a radical approach to dealing with the consequences of students going abroad and of unofficial organizations offering tertiary-level studies.»