Parents shell out for ‘free’ education

Afrequently heard refrain among parents these days is «I’d take out a loan if I had to, to give my child an education.» Manolis Leivadaras has a small convenience store in the Athens district of Kaisariani. Standing among cartons of cigarettes and piles of newspapers, he is waiting for a phone call from his daughter Marina, who is a student in Arta. His phone rings on schedule, and he asks her about her courses, her studying, about school. One immediately gets the impression that these are not routine questions. «When you have children, you know you have a number of mountains to climb,» he says. «It isn’t enough to feed and clothe them. To educate them, you have to dig deep into your pockets – foreign languages, cramming colleges, private lessons. And if they are lucky and get a place at university, if it is in another town you’ll have to dig even deeper. You can’t deprive them of the right to knowledge. You’ll do whatever you can so they can get ahead.» His store is open from 7.30 a.m to 11.30 p.m., seven days a week. «You can’t leave your customers,» he says. «And when you have a child studying out of town, a lot of what other people consider self-evident becomes a luxury. We only had four days’ holiday last year, at my in-laws’ in Cephalonia.» Before he opened the store 12 years ago, Leivadaras was a taxi driver and before that he had gone to sea as a ship’s mechanic, as many from Piraeus have done. After five years at sea he married and started a family. He returned to the sea for a year-and-a-half afterward to earn money to buy their home in Piraeus. Marina is at Arta Technical College, where she is studying horticulture and landscaping; keeping her there costs about -1,000 a month, including -300 to rent a one-room apartment in the town center. The rest goes on food, transport, bills, phone cards and trips home to Athens. It’s about the same as what the family paid for the elder daughter, Eleni, to attend the teachers’ college in Patras. Payments start early Before that, Leivadaras paid for his daughters’ English and French lessons, which started in primary school, as well as cramming colleges so they could get into an institution of higher education. It’s what every Greek family does for their children. The total extracurricular cost of educating Greek children amounts to almost -1 billion a year. No other country in Europe spends so much. «We are not a special case, nor are we heroes,» says Leivadaras. «Anyone would do the same. Who wants their children to be deprived of a chance to study? What parents don’t want to pay for their children to learn English? You can’t avoid it. Why should my child be the one to miss out? There has been no real attempt to fight the black market in education. The system itself only encourages it. Since there are so many unemployed teachers, they should be absorbed in some way into the labor market. There are no cramming colleges in other countries, because it appears their education systems are built on stronger foundations. «The son of one of my customers goes to school in England and he is told his examination schedule for May when schools open in September. Here they sometimes haven’t even been given textbooks by the end of the first term. What can you expect?» Marina didn’t qualify for a place the first time and had to try again the next year. «What should I have told her – to give up and come and work in the store?» her father says. «I see how businesses are doing. At least this way she’ll get an education. Eleni was lucky to find a job as soon as she graduated, because there is a demand for primary school teachers. Marina might not find one so easily, but education is a wonderful thing, even if you don’t end up doing what you were trained for. Having a degree doesn’t automatically get you a job. My daughter might never use her diploma, if she finds a well-off husband and decides to stay home and raise a family. But knowledge broadens the mind. When there is a serious conversation going on, an uneducated person can’t take part.» Leivadaras himself finished junior high and then entered the Merchant Marine Academy’s mechanics’ school. He regrets not having gone on to tertiary education. ‘Different mentality’ «In those days our minds were on other things and the mentality was different,» he says. «I worked in a taverna from the age of 11. But because our generation was deprived of certain things, we don’t want our children to suffer the same way. Greeks are like that. Sometimes I think that if our parents had been able to support us and if they had encouraged us to study, we would have been nuclear scientists.» Marina comes home for holidays. She likes her course even though it was not what she imagined she would be doing, although she says that when she applied, she had no particular preference. Now in her third semester, Marina says she likes the experience of living in another town and is enjoying the life. As for the future, she has no idea. «I’ve been told I might be able to work in an architect’s office. We’ll see,» she said. When Eleni was studying in Patras, her father received a housing bonus of -1,000 euros a year – «enough for about three months’ rent.» Marina, however, is not entitled to it as their family income is now just slightly over the limit of -30,000 a year. «We have a hard time forking out enough to maintain a second household,» the father says. «You make sacrifices so that your child doesn’t go without. «We’re lucky that my wife is a civil servant and there is a steady income from there. If a student misses a term – that’s another -6,000. Every time there were sit-ins or teachers’ strikes when Eleni was in Patras, I used to panic. Fortunately we haven’t had any problems like that with either of our daughters.» In a corner, a television is showing news of the strikes in tertiary institutions over the review of Article 16 of the Constitution. «I don’t really have an opinion, but I’ll tell you something,» Leivadaras says. «Whoever gets the minister’s job, the first thing they do is to change the entrance qualifications for tertiary education, without really changing anything substantial. They talk about doing away with the cramming colleges. But maybe we parents are to blame – after all, you see signs outside some of them claiming to have had a 90 percent success rate the previous year. We never see signs like that outside state schools. Everything has become business. What can you expect when parents themselves tell of teachers who have reprimanded their children? In the final analysis, that’s where the problem is – both old and young being spoiled.»