Reforming the university system

The election campaign has seen plenty of rhetoric from candidates about the knowledge society but, as usual, discussion has not moved beyond generalities. Nonetheless, this may be the first time that the two major parties have come up with detailed programs for education. What is more important, they converge on a number of points, some of which were until recently hotly disputed. After recognition of the need for the systematic, reliable evaluation of every university, the position of PASOK leader George Papandreou on the establishment of non-state universities creates the conditions for a steady move in that direction. New Democracy has been moving along the same lines for years. The situation in higher education is unacceptable, to put it mildly. A few bright exceptions do not prove the rule. This is why reform in this field is more urgent than ever. Conditions are ripe. Public opinion has shed its prejudices to a large extent and is ready to accept daring changes in the structure and operation of universities. Doubtless there will be objections but, properly managed, they should peter out in rearguard action. The complex of small and large interests which supports stagnation does not have enough moral or political clout on its own to block such reform. The problem is acute at all levels. Despite higher enrollments in universities and technical colleges, demand is still rising for post-senior high school studies, leading to both extensive migration abroad by students and the establishment of various liberal studies centers. Demand certainly outstrips supply, but in an open society, such imbalances are not resolved administratively. Besides, education is a human value as well as a professional qualification. The establishment of non-state universities will make a decisive contribution at this level. Most significantly, it will introduce an element of comparison and constructive competition into the provision of high-quality education. There is the question of the constitutional clause, but given political will and broad consensus, solutions can be found. Particularly after a recent decision by the European Parliament, the problem may be resolved opportunely and in a coordinated fashion so as to avoid the promotion of liberal studies centers into private universities. If such universities are created, they must be non-profit organizations that meet strict requirements and are subject to strict monitoring of the courses offered. But in order to make this possible, public universities and technical colleges must also be made subject to strict evaluation so as to be upgraded. The existing regime, in which all university degrees have equal weight, has no future. As time passes, the job market will take serious account of which university a graduate attended and the level of his or her degree. This change will not come only from the private sector; sooner or later the public sector will follow suit. Until then, the filter will be examinations for entry into the public service.