Three hundred American students who attended the fall semester at the American College of Thessaloniki (ACT) flew back home having sampled a strong dose of the “Greek experience.”
Over just a few weeks, they experienced firsthand the frustration of having to queue at various local public services, banks and state clinics, the bewilderment of having to be vaccinated for tuberculosis, have a chest X-ray and many other travails all to acquire a residence permit. The ironic part is the documents weren’t ready before they left the country, at which point they were sent to them in the US.
“For years, we have been discussing ways to make Greece a magnet for foreign students, but the legal system is not much help,” says Stamos Karamouzis, provost at ACT. “The American College receives the biggest number of foreign students in Greece, but achieving this means a constant battle against bureaucracy,” he adds.
ACT is the most popular academic destination in Greece for American students, but also a magnet for students from the Balkan states who either come to Greece for their first degree or as visiting students from other institutions for one or more semesters. However, being students from third countries, they are obliged to go through the ordeal of applying for a residence permit. The same applies to foreign students who choose to attend classes at one of the country’s state universities.
Challenges for interested students start before they even leave their homeland as in order to travel to Greece they need a “D” type study visa. “They need to make an application at one of the Greek consulates, which require a physical presence. In the case of the US, this is a real challenge because not every city has a consulate,” says Karamouzis. Often, students who wish to study in Greece have to fly to one of the US cities with a Greek consulate; in some cases, one visit to the consulate is not enough due to paperwork.
The study visa lasts 90 days – which is far less than the time the American students stay in Greece. This means they have to apply for a residence permit, which entails a great deal of paperwork as well as medical checks, vaccinations and X-rays. The law says the examinations must take place in a public hospital. “At school we have a doctor who could carry out these checks and administer the tuberculosis vaccine. But he is not allowed to,” Karamouzis says.
Moreover, the state requires that foreign students are insured with the Social Security Foundation (IKA). “The Americans, of course, have private insurance, which however is not recognized by the state, which compels them to pay an IKA contribution.” Furthermore, the law says that they must have a Greek bank account, which is not always possible because they do not have a taxpayer identification number – what Greeks call AFM.
“We take students out of class in order to take them to hospitals and public services. We even have hired staff for help,” says Karamouzis.
Bureaucracy however does not stop even after the application has reached the authorities.
“Even if regional government officials do give their approval, the residence permit is issued after the students have left the country. However, students are covered as long as their application is pending. But the state basically requires stuff which it itself cannot provide.”
Although Greece continues to export a relatively high number of students, it is a laggard when it comes to attracting foreign students to its own academic institutions. “However, instead of doing something to fix this, we end up showing the country’s worst side to the foreign students who come here.”