A false dilemma

The endless controversy over the efforts to legalize private colleges in Greece goes right to the heart of the failure of our politicians and society to adapt to the times. Taboos, prejudices, political grandstanding and fear of the political cost have all been employed to stymie efforts to deal with reality, keeping the colleges and their graduates in limbo for no reason other than an inability to deal with problems. This political theater passes for policy and leads to great sound and fury and, in the end, to a total lack of progress on an issue that demands the greatest attention. To round it all off, in the end something gets done only because the European Union demands that the Greeks stop fooling around. None of this is a credit to our politicians nor ourselves and it is the worst possible omen for the country’s future. For years now, private colleges – some of them representing foreign institutions – have been operating in Greece, giving students who did not make it into the state universities a chance to pursue a tertiary education near home rather than studying abroad. Some 25,000 of them have graduated and another 10,000 to 12,000 are studying at these institutions without knowing whether their degrees will be recognized as equal to those of graduates of the state university system. All this time, no government has dared legitimize the system of non-state colleges, because it is a taboo to even consider «private universities» – the term rings as an paradox to many Greeks’ ears – but neither did it ban them, as they served as a necessary outlet for people wanting to study. The issue came up in the last constitutional reform process. The proposal to allow non-state universities to operate, however, did not win the backing of the main opposition PASOK party even though its leader, George Papandreou, had voiced support for non-state universities in the past. And so, earlier this year, cheap party politics closed the door on legalizing the colleges for the next decade. Still, something must be done, as the European Union cannot accept a little corner of its territory – like a perverse version of Asterix’s Gallic village – where the principle of equality does not apply. Along with the heavy fines Greece will have to pay if it does not manage to close the hundreds of illegal garbage dumps still operating, we will also be penalized if we don’t solve the problem of the colleges. The government’s efforts to square the circle (allowing the colleges to operate because the EU demands this, even as the constitution demands that they disappear) has focused on laying out guidelines and vowing to keep strict control by evaluating the colleges. Those opposed to any legalization of the non-state colleges claim that the private institutions will undermine the state university system and, in order to be profitable, will do nothing but produce graduates who are focused on meeting the market’s needs. The fact is that the market has already made its decision and chooses employees on the basis of their own qualities and ambition and not so much because they are the products of the state education system or of foreign colleges based in Greece or elsewhere. Furthermore, the fans of state universities are most condescending toward the foreign colleges, even as the state system lagged criminally in meeting the EU requirement that universities (and their staff) submit to objective evaluation. That is why only three of them are among the top 500 universities in the world. The state universities have nothing to fear from foreign franchises, which can never compete in terms of budget and resources. But, having allowed political parties and their youth wings to hijack them, our universities have collapsed amid cronyism and indifference. They have betrayed our youth and are undermining the country’s future. The fight over private colleges is a meaningless diversion from the real battle that has to be waged. But since the government’s re-election a year ago, even the most basic university reforms introduced by a former education minister have been diluted or forgotten.

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