Letter from Thessaloniki

One could put it this way: «If universities are fountains of knowledge, then students are there to drink.» About a month ago, this newspaper published a survey saying that well over a quarter of adolescents – 28.2 percent, to be exact – regularly consumed alcohol. At a loss for the right words, let’s resort to numbers: that’s a 3.4 percent increase since 1998, when a similar survey of this age group was conducted. Only two days ago, some striking statistics disclosed worse, namely a candidate who won a place in a university faculty with an average exam score of only 1.53 out of 20! Obviously, Greek students as a whole usually perform unspectacularly nowadays. Certainly there are those who insist that some Greeks studying abroad make the top percentiles, yet the problem is that many students in Greek universities also fall within the lowest percentiles.  The disapppointing conclusion is that our country’s education system has been, and still is, in something of a mess. Since former education minister Gerasimos Arsenis’s educational reform became a battleground for conflicting views expressed by the then-PASOK government and various sectors of the education community some years ago, the debate over the so-called grade inflation and deflation continue. The next education minister, Petros Efthymiou, also PASOK, added his own gloss to these reforms. He opted for yet another solution: outrageously easy questions at senior school examinations which produced an affluence of top marks, which in their turn led to the general downgrading of studies. All education reforms of the last 30 years tended to be stillborn, suitable only for classroom biopsies. What is generally said to be wrong is wrong, while Greek public schools have cheapened the value of an A or an honors degree. On the other hand, although the percentage of pupils attending private schools and private lessons is hardly high – somewhere between 6.4 and 7.1 percent – they are doing much better in preparing for the national university exams. In actual practice, a high percentage of the student population goes on to higher education. About 295,000 students are registered at Greek universities, and 15 percent of the population currently holds a university degree. Some three in four candidates gain admission to Greek universities and technical educational institutions. Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in Greece with a population of more than one million, has three state universities. The Aristotle University, founded in 1925 and named after the philosopher – whose famous dictums include: «state education is not worthy of free citizens» – is the largest university in Greece with more than 70,000 students. Probably unique in the world, the Greek Constitution requires that higher education be entirely public, and Article 16 states that the «formation of universities by private individuals is forbidden.» Thessaloniki also hosts my personal alma mater: Anatolia College, a school which originated in 1886 in Turkey as a Protestant seminary. In my time it was just a high school which also taught English. Nowadays it has been upgraded to a fine all-American-style college offering programs of study in arts, science and business administration. This non-profit institution, without accreditation in Greece, is all the same accredited by the New England Association for Schools and Colleges, identical to that accorded to Harvard, MIT and others. Despite the constitutional ban on private universities, foreign students still study here. Thessaloniki, a university city where the energy is lively, has some worrisome problems that torment our offspring; not so much drugs like in the US as the kind of popular «happy violence,» which describes unreal television and screen violence that appears painless and always results in a happy ending. Another «imported» problem has been the schooling of over 50,000 children of foreign residents in Greece. Children of repatriated Greeks from the former Soviet Union and Albania, who account for at least 9 percent of primary school pupils in northern Greece’s Macedonia. Obviously, it is a quirk of human nature that a country’s most successful wealth and job creators are often its most resented residents: The Greeks in the Ottoman Empire, the Jews in pre-war Germany, the Chinese in Southeast Asia. Yet, since there is no proven best way of teaching immigrant children whose Greek is not up to scratch, schools should be allowed to decide on the method themselves. Failing that, the decline of public education continues. According to an opinion poll, 92 percent of pupils think that private tuition centers are more useful than schools in preparing them for the university. Once again, Thessaloniki proves itself exceptional in giving foreign students extra lessons in learning – for extra money, of course. The American-run Pinewood School here, which offers educational programs from pre-kindergarten through grade 12, accommodates the offspring of several magnates from the neighboring Balkan countries who believe they will secure the «right» education there. Of course, tuition rates are something like $5,000 to $8,000 (between 4,000 and 6,500 euros). Boarding facilities are extra. These are prices that very few Albanian, Kosovar or Bulgarian parents could pay. As for the state universities, many believe that Greece should have fewer, but better organized ones. Greece still has a long way to go to catch up with the developed countries as far as education is concerned, as reports by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) prove every year. The current education minister, Marietta Giannakou, has promised some kind of liberalization of the education sector. However, reform of Greek education can be imposed only through a wide consensus. And this will come at a price – a political price.