Are Greece’s universities new Olympic Airways?

With the legacy of the anti-junta protests, the university system has a special place in Greek culture that goes beyond the conventional academic values found elsewhere in Europe. Many inside the system seek to uphold its exceptionalism – in effect, claiming a general right of asylum from the rest of society. «Outsiders» cannot be trusted with the cherished system: They will not understand it; they will not have the right values. The problem is that the world has changed. By many indicators, the university system fails to deliver. More and more Greeks are opting to abandon their own university system in order to study abroad and many are also opting for academic careers abroad, as well. The rest of Greek society does not share this sense of a cherished national system. How many Greek politicians, how many businessmen send their children to study abroad? Greek families – including low salary earners – spend the highest percentage of private income in Europe on education. I have yet to meet a Greek academic who thinks that the solution is for the state simply to spend more on the current university system. If the Ministry of Education disappeared from the university system, would the latter deliver better quality on its own? The university leaderships are undermined by internal politicization, obligated to the youth wings of political parties. Any authority has been built on sand: The system cannot even prevent vandalism and theft, let alone encourage greater performance. The Ministry of Education, historically, has sought to compensate for this weakness by excessive control, via top-down management, exacerbating inefficiencies and stifling innovation. Who governs the Greek universities? The system is one of nonmanagement. The case reminds me of some of the problems at the old Olympic Airways. It too was regarded as «off-limits» to reform. Management could not manage, clientelism and ministerial interference was rife and the allocation of resources was a joke. We are still witnessing the problem of what to do with the staff at the airline who were not performing any useful function in the old company. The government’s recent proposals on university reform are therefore worthy of serious consideration as they open up the right issues. I would strongly support the proposition that academics should determine the academic agenda of teaching and research. As the trained specialists, they merit that autonomy. But with the privilege of autonomy in these core areas comes the responsibility of being accountable to the rest of society. The idea of a «management council» bringing in expertise and contributions from wider society would meet this obligation. The proposals, in these respects, reflect the reality of universities in the USA and the United Kingdom – those that so many Greeks are applying to. As someone who has spent over 30 years in these systems, I have not felt threatened by a council that includes outsiders. Indeed, I have never felt that academics had exclusive insight into matters of strategic planning and development or of budget management. Such a council – as an integral part of a university structure – does not seem to be an imposition contravening the Greek Constitution. Universities also need to be responsive in other ways. As an academic in the UK system, my teaching is regularly evaluated and I am obliged to have continuous training to ensure I perform to an acceptable standard. At the same time, the quality of my research is also assessed and this affects the level of resources that comes from the state to my university. I accept such assessments given the privilege I have of a tenured position. The initiatives Greece has taken in this regard in recent years are woefully inadequate to stimulate better quality. In today’s world, we cannot afford to have a university system that is insular. The appointment and promotion of staff must be opened up so that decisions are made according to international performance criteria. In Copenhagen, they talk of the dangers of being «world famous in Denmark» – local stars whose quality is not really determined, but assumed. Again, universities in the US and the UK appoint and promote by reference to international indicators. The raising of standards also comes from increased competition. Scarce state funding for research needs to be allocated by an open, meritocratic system. Likewise, students who can choose courses from among departments become a stimulus for departments to enhance their teaching quality and the access students have to staff. There are many academics in Greece I admire. But universities are not owned by academics or by students. They should not be determined solely by a producer interest. Olympic Airways forgot this principle to its eventual cost. Families, taxpayers, the economy and society each have a legitimate voice. The new debate on reform cannot be taken over by student protests or by deans refusing to discuss the issue. This makes for lively media coverage but does nothing for the national interest. (1) Kevin Featherstone is professor of contemporary Greek studies at the London School of Economics and director of its Hellenic Observatory. He was recently appointed to the National Council for Research and Technology (ESET) in Greece.