A major anniversary like the one Greece is celebrating this year is an opportunity to ponder the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. An assessment of the country’s growth prospects shows deficiencies in at least three areas: a lackluster connection between entrepreneurship and foreign markets; a dearth of high-tech production and innovation; and an unfavorable demographic trajectory, with few births and a negative migration balance. In short, introversion is undermining the progress that could be achieved.
Many economies, as well as societies, are regularly bolstered by an educational system that attracts people and ideas from a wider area. Specifically, tertiary education can serve as a vehicle of mobility for students, scientists and technology. The sizable benefits of this are seen not just in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and France – which would be very different if they did not attract and systematically develop human capital – but also in a plethora of others that have exploited or cultivated areas and fields with a large local or global reach.
People who move to another country to study don’t just bolster the local economy directly; they also bring ideas, form personal bonds and often stay on, for professional or personal reasons, integrating into society and strengthening the economy at their productive peak. They also serve as a strong bridge with their country of origin.
This is a mechanism that is broken in Greece. Very few students come here to study from abroad, and while this is partly due to the education system itself, it is also due to the economy. Nevertheless, the potential is extraordinary. Greece could be a major center for graduate and postgraduate studies, and even for vocational training and specialized studies, locally for the broader region of the Balkans, the Middle East, Turkey and, of course, Cyprus, spearheaded by the sciences and economics, data analysis and business management. On a global scale, it could be a force in Classical studies, history and philosophy. Cultivating bonds with the diaspora would also be beneficial, including with the creation of more programs in the English language, cooperating with institutions abroad and teaching the Greek language.
Systematically attracting more young people than we do at present would also have a positive effect on the country’s student body. It would contribute to the creation of a rich and dynamic educational environment. University students in Greece today have little exposure to and communication with developments abroad, as opposed to those studying elsewhere. This manifestation of introversion has a negative impact at a time when opening our horizons is critical to the sciences and the economy.
However, making Greece’s educational system more attractive, with a greater presence on the international map, is not something that can just happen automatically. It demands the modernization of its structures and operations – a system that is over-regulated by the state or with introverted and outdated forms of governance simply cannot rise to the present challenges. It is also essential that parts of the economy are reconfigured, as education cannot be a bridge to nowhere. Manufacturing on the basis of innovation, startup businesses, high-quality services in culture, tourism and shipping, and foreign investments can form a net that is supported by and in turn supports specialized areas of study.
Policies aimed at strengthening human capital but also bolstering a dynamic section of the population that will be initially attracted by the educational system are fundamental. In view of the anticipated rebound following the end of the pandemic, and for this to succeed in the medium term, it is important that the necessary political interventions are set in motion now. After all, a look at the past shows us that the country has always progressed significantly when it has been more open. Use of the new European resources will be successful only to the extent that it works toward a more outward-looking and open economy instead of the opposite, as has often been the case in the past.
Nikos Vettas is the general director of the Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research (IOBE) and a professor at the Athens University of Economics and Business.