The issue of the establishment of private universities in Greece is on the hotseat now that discussion on related constitutional amendments is taking place in the Greek Parliament.
The SYRIZA administration is strongly against giving the green light to private higher education institutions to operate in Greece. Main opposition party New Democracy claims that it is imperative to pass the Constitutional amendments.
According to party leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greece must change their way of thinking on this issue and recognize “the country’s contemporary needs.”
Article 16 of the Greek constitution prohibits the establishment of private higher education institutions. In Greece, universities have always been state-owned entities, and their faculty are civil servants, paid by the government.
An anachronism created by the colonels’ junta
It is deeply ironic that the Greek Left defends Article 16 and fights tooth and nail against private universities in the country. The policy was created during the 1967-74 military dictatorship in order to prevent communists from creating private universities for propaganda purposes.
After the junta was banished, Greece’s democratic government revised the Constitution again in 1974, still retaining Article 16. The Greek Left embraced public education and considered universities “strongholds of democracy” based on the 1973 Polytechnic uprising which had dealt a symbolic blow to the dictators.
In 2008, when Constitutional revisions were brought up again and a revision of Article 16 was sponsored by the New Democracy Party, Greek university students took to the streets demonstrating against the change. There were violent riots in major university cities across Greece, forcing the government to back down.
At the time, leftist posters were put up in Athens claiming that forty percent of state funds allocated for higher education would go to private universities if Article 16 was revised. Of course, that was pure propaganda. with no evidence to justify the claim. Yet many students believed it.
The Left defends ban on private universities
When the Constitution review issue was raised again in 2018, the SYRIZA Party became the new defender of the Greek ban on private universities.
In its four years in power, SYRIZA has proved that it does not intend to grant university status to institutions of private education. Its ministers and MPs continue to use the tired argument that “higher education is for all Greeks” and repeat this like a mantra for lack of a more convincing argument.
During the current discussion in parliament over Article 16, Tsipras even argued that if Greece allowed private universities, “that would mean more colleges and not a Harvard.” This is an arbitrary assumption without any substantiation whatsoever.
Another argument used by the Left in opposing the modernization of Greek higher education is that private higher education will hurt public institutions. Again, this position is groundless since SYRIZA representatives never provide any elaboration on why and how private institutions will cause any kind of damage to public universities.
During the debate in parliament, a SYRIZA lawmaker brought up another argument against private universities, using the issue of student loans in the United States and their financial burden on the students and their families. But, again, this example has no relation whatsoever to the situation in Greece.
Despite SYRIZA’s claims that they defend the public interest, almost half of the Greek people are in favor of the establishment of private universities. According to a poll conducted in late 2017 on behalf of the Athens Chamber of Commerce, 49 percent of respondents are in favor of the government granting university status to private institutions. Only 18 percent of respondents did not have a position on the issue or did not want to answer.
There were 28 private colleges offering undergraduate and graduate degrees as of late 2017 in the nation of Greece. Two of the colleges are branch campuses. The rest are run as separate faculties or franchises of foreign universities.
In some cases, their degrees are validated by foreign accreditation agencies such as Great Britain’s NARIC or the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, which is based in Massachusetts.
Degrees awarded by these colleges have been recognized by the Greek government since 2012, because they are validated by accreditation agencies. Still, the degrees offered are considered of lower value than those from Greek institutions of higher education.
However, the high attendance at these colleges and the fairly high tuition indicate that there are many Greek students who want to receive an education outside public universities. There may also be some students who failed to pass the entry exams required.
Currently there are about 15,000 students attending foreign colleges within Greece. Eleven thousand of those students are studying in UK-affiliated institutions, according to the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency.
Greeks studying abroad and the brain drain
There were 37,484 Greeks studying abroad in the year 2017, with over one third of them in the UK, according to the Hellenic Quality Assurance and Accreditation Agency. The revenues the Greek economy is losing are obviously substantial.
But of course there are much more important issues at stake than just money. According to analysts, Greece’s brain drain is much more damaging than lost revenues. It is very likely that Greek students who study abroad, will stay in the country where they study and begin their careers there.
The current unemployment situation – and especially youth unemployment – prohibits most of the people who choose to go to university abroad from returning home again. And given the low salaries degreed professionals usually receive in Greece, it makes their return to the country tantamount to financial suicide.
It is difficult to say if a student who can afford studying at a university abroad would consider attending a private university in Greece. But perhaps those who can afford the tuition, yet not the cost, of living in another country would choose a private university in their homeland.
By any measure, the state of Greece’s brain drain is deplorable at the present. It is estimated that currently, approximately 215,000 Greek people who have university degrees are working outside of the country.
Article 16 and Greece’s future
If Article 16 is revised during this parliamentary session, another session is needed to ratify these terms with a two thirds majority vote. However, despite the ravages of the Greek brain drain, SYRIZA does not seem willing to grant university status to private providers.
So it appears that it is up to the progressive political powers of Greece to change the anachronistic article now. Otherwise, they will have to wait for the next constitutional review in ten years.
Private universities will boost the economy and the benefits will be numerous. Many job positions will open, students from abroad will flock back home, and local economies will greatly improve around campuses.
At the same time, private universities may even challenge public universities as part of a healthy academic rivalry. It’s well past time for Greece to join the rest of the West and adopt this most basic tenet of the modern world – competition.