Reduced intake at Kozani TEI hits city

The inhabitants, authorities, shop owners and local media of the university town of Kozani Western Macedonia were surprised by the reduced number of university entrants. They knew last year that the Education Ministry’s stringent measures raising the pass mark to 10 for Tertiary Technical Colleges (TEI) candidates would have a profound affect on city. The new measures had been a source of apprehension for some time but life went on as usual until the end of this August when the pass rates were announced. Kozani hit the headlines: 1,432 fewer entrants (2,380 last year compared to 948 this year) which meant over 1,000 fewer tenants and people living, consuming, traveling to and from the city, using local and long distance transport. «What annoys and worries me,» said Kozani mayor and president of KEDKE (Central Union of Municipalities and Communities of Greece), Paris Koukoulopoulos, «is that I informed the ministry of the problem a year ago, on September 5, and the minister had assured me that they would look into the matter.» What is done is done. The city is already feeling the effects, mainly in rented housing where prices are plummeting. An educational measure has become a social and economic problem for a whole area. So what happens now? Will a whole city go under? Can you condemn the inhabitants to a lower standard of living from one day to the next? Should a city develop its economic life around the TEI and its students? You cannot of course make decisions about education based on the survival of fast food restaurants and cafes. But for Kozani the issue goes much deeper. The role formerly played by the factories for a whole century is now played by the TEI as the main focus of development. With the opening of the TEI in Kozani the inhabitants were able to re-orientate their activities around the student economy. If someone had a 100-square-meter apartment they split it into two bed sits of 50 sq. m. and rented it out to students. Some were able to take out housing loans to build an apartment block with flats for students. Half of the rent from the student tenants paid off the housing loan and the rest was extra income for their families. If someone had an old shack on the outskirts of Kozani they traded the land in exchange for the construction of an apartment block. A semi-basement could be turned into a photocopy shop. Restaurants and tavernas were turned into fast food eateries and cafes. Everything in the town was linked to TEI student activity. Even the taxis and buses were used by students traveling to and from the college. The intercity coach service from Kozani to Ptolemaida and Thessaloniki had 23 buses running a day. «The losses are great,» said Nikolaos Vatsiotis, estate agency president. «The government first sent us masses of students and in essence drove us into the construction of student accommodation and today it tells us we suddenly have to change. We invested so that the city could accommodate the students. People took out loans to build. The sector has been devastated.» The plight of Manolis Pallas’s real estate business is indicative, «until last year, as soon as the pass marks were announced, it was hectic. You couldn’t keep up, there were people coming into the office two or three at a time. Students, parents, the phone never stopped ringing. Now someone comes in every two days. I believe there are about 2,000 houses that are unrented in Kozani. I alone have 50 empty houses. And there are 10 estate agents in the city. Add all the ‘to let’ signs plastered on the walls of the city and you can understand what’s happening. Here, next door, in the centre of the town a brand-new, fully furnished bed sit with electrical appliances is up for rent for just 180 euros. The landlord would rather drop the price than not rent it out at all.» Kozani still has life and the students that have arrived to sit their exams give the city a touch of colour. The cafes and bars are full at night and after 10 at night the place has the hustle and bustle of an island in August. At three in the morning the nightlife is in full swing with dozens of bars on the sidewalks playing music until the morning. «The effects of the new educational measure will be felt in three to four years’ time when the old students leave and no new students come to replace them,» said souvlaki-shop owner Dimitris. «We haven’t yet realised the difference, but with a thousand people fewer every year we will notice a drop all around.» Apart from the economic impact, another serious issue is that of the TEI workforce which has been a decisive factor in determining the everyday and cultural life of the city. The cinemas bring premiere films, theatrical groups have been formed, seminars are held, fresh ideas are aired and the city’s development policy has taken on a new orientation. Young academics have come to live and work in the city and they are often put to use by the municipality. Education is the best investment for the future of the land. As the mayor said, «we want Kozani to be an urban centre with a discrete character. A society of knowledge and information, with renewable energy sources. A city that is socially cohesive, friendly to its inhabitants and competitive for housing and investment. The existence of a modern TEI forms part of this vision.» What do the students themselves say? Panagiotis, Valia and Dimosthenes have been in «exotic» Kozani for four years. «The measure is good for our school. The standard has to be raised. It’s absurd for someone to get into the accounting department of the TEI and not be able to do simple equations.» On the other hand, the left-wing student body urges the abolition of the new measure and free access to higher education. TEI President Stergios Ganatsios has pointed out «that the standing of the provincial colleges needs to be improved so that they feature higher up in the students’ choices. TEIs have done well with the exception of Florina, where the school cannot survive. The TEI for Plant Propagation in Thessaloniki has filled up but only 30 students entered the one in Florina. This shows that the school in itself is interesting but the town is not at all attractive to young people. Those responsible must acknowledge that a student is not an army conscript. The cities must become attractive so that students from large urban centres do not put the provincial colleges as their last choice and do not feel they are being sent into exile.» This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s color supplement K on September 17, 2006.