Education reform

The recent warning by Education Minister Marietta Giannakou that degrees could be rendered worthless unless drastic steps are taken to streamline Greek university institutions also has a social dimension. Although Greek university degrees officially carry the same weight, in practice institutional prestige varies, prompting students to seek postgraduate studies in more respected foreign institutions. The most popular Greek schools may enjoy some respect, but things are different with those that were created with the aim of satisfying the «democratic demand» for higher education. Building more universities was a way to increase the number of entrants. However, according to statistics that have been published over the past few years, the students of the more prestigious institutions come mostly from families of scientists or professionals while the number of students from rural, working or low-income families has shrunk. Most of them end up in low-demand schools whose degrees are gradually being devalued. It does not take an expert to realize that this trend works against upward social mobility and equality of opportunity – and that in the context of the «knowledge economy.» There is a great deal of speculation about the causes of the phenomenon but the root cause seems to be the failure of Greek state schools to provide free education and still compete with costly private schools and tuition centers. We should bear this in mind when the debate on education opens. Our concern should not be confined to policies such as compulsory 12-year education or regular school examinations, however useful these measures may be. The pending debate must produce a long-term and daring program for education reform, starting with the oft-neglected primary education. Greece has a lot to learn from Scandinavian countries, where the improving performance of the school system over the previous years is said to be the result of considerable, long-term investment in staff and equipment, both in primary and higher schools. The government should reform education along Scandinavian lines and build a quality system – and not one geared to the lowest common denominator. For this to happen, education reformers must look beyond the examination system and the number of entrants and instead promote truly long-term investment in accordance with a program that will be followed for a decade without interruptions and knee-jerk reactions.