Can a bear dance the ballet?

Can a bear dance the ballet?

In a recent article in Kathimerini, a team of respected scientists called for more investment in research and recommended the introduction of open workshops at universities that would allow students to develop skills in areas such as robotics. Essentially this means cultivating a culture of creativity, innovation and invention. These workshops, known as makerspaces in some countries, represent a departure from the practice of high specialization and from conventional disciplines, and, as a result, from the usual university departments and schools.

Even though their purpose is undoubtedly serious, they are defined by their sense of complete accessibility and a playful character that defies the classic educational mind-set. Having witnessed the success of such a workshop at Yale a decade ago, I can imagine all sorts of similar initiatives: in the biosciences, obviously, but also in the social sciences (for example, economic and political sciences can be connected to statistics, history, literature or film studies). Such initiatives, however, require flexible academic structures that can mobilize private and public funds and apply innovative practices even when they have a small quantifiable result or carry the risk of failure.

But there are two fundamental points that must not be overlooked: First, research is the most essential precondition to future prosperity and, second, the university as a space of learning and innovation is changing radically, swiftly – and globally. Even though everyone agrees with both these points, here we are in Greece debating yet another reform bill that once more seeks to regulate every little detail of universities’ operation. It’s a bit like asking a bear to dance the ballet.

Education Minister Niki Kerameus undoubtedly deserves applause for her efforts to improve Greece’s educational system at every level. I personally appreciate her work and her tirelessness. I also know that the everyday operation of our educational system is nothing to be taken for granted; it requires a tremendous amount of effort and even more so the spirit of betterment that defines the ministry’s latest reform. I am also mindful of the need to consider the positions of many different elements involved in such an endeavor, as well as the risk that any changes introduced by a government will be ignored or abolished down the line. It is a tricky business indeed.

Nevertheless, this changes nothing: The fundamental reform of the Greek education system so that it can be brought up to speed with global developments requires radical change, not just tweaks and improvements. We need makerspaces now! We need initiatives to attract brilliant minds now!

The fundamental reform of the Greek education system so that it can be brought up to speed with global developments requires radical change, not just tweaks and improvements 

The only way to achieve such goals is to give universities (or at least some of their departments) a lot more independence and flexibility. Sure, failure and corruption are endemic risks in such autonomy, but instead of trying to penalize these risks with the bureaucratic logic of mammoth legislation, maybe we would be better off focusing on a more general regulatory framework, flexible funding based on incentives and competition, strict penalties for disciplinary infringements and oversights via an independent standards authority, placing more trust in the market logic (in the sense of universities’ appeal) and accepting that some failure is just as necessary as success.

One thing is certain: Believing that the pace and logic governing the tertiary education system in Greece right now – even if the new law is fully implemented, to the letter – will help the country accomplish the radical changes it needs, is like comparing a bear show to “Swan Lake.”

Stathis N. Kalyvas is the Gladstone Professor of Government at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford.

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