University system in need of rescue effort

Greece’s universities are in crisis, 20 years after the implementation of a law (1268/82) that aimed to make tertiary institutions more democratic, chiefly by abolishing faculty chairs. There is grave concern over where the country’s universities are heading, the quality of the work produced in them, particularly in today’s competitive times when there are more demands on graduates and unemployment is steadily rising. Kathimerini talked to several university rectors about the roots of the problems. Generally, they agreed that the universities were in trouble, in that they suffer from a lack of autonomy, human resources and infrastructure. Funding is not granted on the basis of merit and priorities are arbitrarily determined. Yet it also appears that there are major differences from one university to another. Sharing the blame The rector of the National Technical University of Athens, Professor Themistocles S. Xanthopoulos, said that according to surveys by international organizations, standards at Greek universities are below that required for the development of studies and research. «It is unacceptable that annual state expenditure on Greek students is 40 percent lower than the average for the rest of Europe,» he said. «Only Greek universities have no say either in setting the number of students to be admitted to the courses that provide the foundations of knowledge for those candidates, or even in formulating a national policy for basic and applied research,» he added. Xanthopoulos also drew attention to the lack of support for courses that are in great demand, in favor of those which do not meet any real need. As a result, he said, valuable human resources as well as technical infrastructure are being wasted and students are leaving the country in droves. This, he said, puts the reputation of Greek tertiary education at risk, since several faculties, chiefly at Technical Colleges (TEI), were accepting students who either did not really want to be there or who had received grades that should normally disqualify them from tertiary studies. According to Xanthopoulos, everyone in the university community has to shoulder part of the blame. «Despite the tough conditions of international competition, there is no general realization of the need for courageous and selfless service in teaching, research and administrative work,» concluded Xanthopoulos. He deplored the fact that at Greek universities, it is individualism which prevails, whether in the overzealous pursuit of personal ambitions or in making the least amount of effort legally permissible. Don’t shoot the rectors! Giorgios Babiniotis, rector of Athens University, said it was pointless to blame the rectors for their universities’ ills since they did not have the final say in what happened. He and his counterparts in other Greek universities do not have the authority to take major decisions, which is the prerogative of collective bodies such as the Senate and Rectors’ Council. «It is time that everyone – faculty, students, parents and journalists – realized that universities do not really manage their own affairs, whether administrative, financial or educational (at the level of planning and meeting needs), so they are not responsible for universities’ negative points,» he said. «Any attack on rectors is an attack on the constitutionally protected public character of the universities, since only in private universities does the principal, who is appointed chiefly on the basis of his ability to secure financial resources, have the power to solve problems. This kind of absolute power, however, is not and should not be appropriate for a state university,» concluded Babiniotis. State is the problem In the opinion of Giorgios I. Venieris, rector of Athens Economics and Business University, the State is a major part of the problem in that it has not shown an desire to plan for the long term. «The existence of faculties which in effect produce graduates that swell the ranks of the unemployed is just one of the problems that can only be solved by changes in universities’ institutional framework,» he said. «However, no one has taken the initiatives needed to change it,» Venieris added. He also mentioned the problems in the functioning of the collective bodies that administer the universities, the fact that on an individual basis, the administrators themselves are not always qualified for the job and that both teaching and administrative staff are badly paid. Venieris was not as skeptical as other colleagues regarding the standard of education. «Generally speaking, the universities provide both knowledge and research. That is evident from comparisons made within the framework of student exchanges,» he said, adding, «Good universities produce graduates who, in a short period of time, and once they have acquired some practical experience, are in a position to assume positions of responsibility.» Streamlining Universities are to a great extent both financially and administratively dependent on the Education Ministry. «Even hiring a cleaning woman is an issue for the ministry,» according to Yiannis A. Filis, rector of the Crete Technical University, where laboratories in each department have been receiving around 13 million drachmas in funds a year, which Filis compared to giving someone just 200 drachmas a day for food. «The universities need a streamlined and practical legislative framework. The political parties can no longer keep ducking the issue and fearing the political cost, or believe that existing, in many ways outdated, legislation can continue to form the basis for modern universities,» he said. Despite the problems of an outdated legislative framework, the paradox of a state which on the one hand exercises too much intervention and on the other is incapable of abiding by its commitments to universities, particularly on the question of funding timetables, Nikolaos K. Zoubos, rector of Patras University, says that most of his counterparts care about their universities («One only has to look at the decisions taken from time to time by the Senates and Rectors’ Congresses») and that they have a vision for the future. «At Patras University, we are working systematically on a 10-year plan, despite the uncertainty that the government will accept it,» he said. Major differences Lumping all rectors together as incompetent managers who are only interested in furthering their own careers is not only untrue but undermines the effort to cure the universities’ real ills, according to Michalis A. Papadopoulos, rector of Thessaloniki University. «I believe that most rectors devote time and trouble to this effort, risking their peace of mind,» he said, claiming there were several islands scattered throughout departments, faculties and universities where a high standard of both teaching and research is being achieved. «In brief, there is a definite need for a national education strategy and for a vision that can inspire and guide Greece’s youth. Greece needs an education system commensurate with the demands of our age. In order to achieve this goal, we need a well-grounded critical approach to reality as we know it. Piecemeal observations and generalized simplifications are of little help,» he concluded.