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Academic freedom is misunderstood in Greece

24 November 2010 / 15:11:05  GRReporter
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The chaos in Greek higher education, the phenomenon of spoiled eternal students and the modern trends in higher education worldwide were the topics Marina Nikolova discussed with Prof. Spyros Amourgis, who is an architect and taught at some of the most prestigious universities around the world. Since 2006 he is the Director of the Hellenic Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.

What is the purpose of the proposal for reform that the Ministry of Education made?  

There were about ten universities in Greece in 1960. In 2000 their number is forty, including universities and colleges, but the rules for their work have not been developed during these 40 years. When they were ten, the Minister gathered the ten managers and asked them about their needs. Тhis has not changed and there are no rules set yet. Many of the problems we face today begin there.

The aim of the Ministry of Education is to decentralize administration, i.e. the Ministry no longer to be obliged to approve Deans’ selection, to appoint lecturers, to determine the rules. The Ministry’s proposal is the universities to take these obligations. But to do this, there must be a control mechanism not by the state but the society. The proposal is to apply the system of the board of trustees under which there is university administration but there is a council of prominent citizens, educated, famous. They control the policy of the university, how much money it needs, how it will find it, in other words there is a dialogue and this is a form of self-control. This caused reactions since parties have entered universities. Parties attract students and a large percentage of the students vote for local government and there is a clientelist relationship. The Ministry proposed a system that will make universities more independent.  

A Kathimerini newspaper article written by three distinguished professors reads the antithesis of this proposal. According to the authors, maybe it is too early to implement this decentralization in an European type of university. Maybe it would be better to start with improvements and bottom-up changes. That is what should happen.

Would you tell me about the universities assessment? What are the first results and what should be done?

One department collects data – how many students have entered, what their marks are, how many have graduated, etc. – and prepares a report that goes to the central office of the university, which monitors the quality of education and whose president is the Dean for Academic Affairs. Every two years on the basis of these reports another report is being prepared for the administration that tells – here we have these problems in our departments and based on data asks if it can get subsidies. If it needs financing, the money are required from the Ministry, but the need for it is proven. In the fourth year students, lecturers and administrators revise the data collected. This report is being submitted to the Office of Education Assessment, which gathers a committee of other experts - lecturers that go to the faculty, talk with students, with lecturers and make a report to be returned to the faculty. A check is made whether there is anything wrong, the report is translated so that if someone is interesting in studying in this department he or she will be able to go online and see what they wrote. Or if a student wants to do a doctorate abroad, they are able to enter the page of the faculty he or shed graduated to see his or her marks.

You have got specific problems. Did you give suggestions for their solution?

We see there are problems that could be solved immediately. If you don’t go to an exam in Greek universities you do not get 0. A dash is marked which means you can go in for an examination each semester. This matters because it is essential for calculating the average score. It is not mandatory for students to attend lectures in Greece. But if they do not attend lectures how to determine how many lecturers are needed? In practice, the Greek taxpayer pays to provide enough lecturers to read lectures. And when students do not attend lectures the system does not work properly. Therefore, it is necessary to do something.

Second, to determine the order of the subjects to be taught and examinations to be passed because you can not become a doctor and get to the sixth course without having passed the exam in anatomy. This was not compulsory, there was academic freedom.

As for lecturers – will they read lectures only six hours a week?! They are doing research, but six hours are not enough. Lecturers in Europe and America read lectures at least ten hours a week and do the research in the rest of the time. For example, a philosophy lecturer teaches 100 students, then the lecturer takes 100 course works to correct them at home, which is to say another hundred hours. The lecturer gets one credit for each hour of teaching. I, as an architect, have to teach three hours to take a credit and a half, because I do not have course works to correct. I develop a project in the beginning of the semester, I give it to students and then I go to the studio and watch how they work. I ask them questions and then I go back home. Americans have developed this system very well and it is fair - it is linked to the number of students. It is not important how many hours you will read lectures but the hours during which you work after or before the lecture are reported and this forms the system of credits. So, there must be rules for the lecturers too.  

Finally - the infrastructure. Each discipline in the universities in Greece has its own lecture-halls and if they are not used by the faculty they remain empty. If several disciplines divide the lecture-halls and if they are full of students from morning till night then fewer lecture-halls, fewer buildings and less money for lecture reading will be needed. For example, the Faculty of Physics has a physics laboratory, which is only for students in physics. But the Faculty of Chemistry also has physics classes and then it makes its own laboratory which is not used too much. But both the faculties could use the same laboratory.  

There is the phenomenon of "eternal students" in Greece – where does the problem lie and what does it mean to be an eternal student?

A law was passed in 1983, under which lecture attending is not obligatory in order not to put students under pressure. The freedom of the university is the freedom of thought, beliefs, but this is misunderstood in Greece. So, students requirements and obligations need to be streamlined. I have graduated in England and if I was absent from 51% of the lectures I could not continue even if I had passed the exams. For lecturers there believe that it does not make sense if you do not have direct contact with the environment, if you study only in memory and then sit for the exam - you forget everything. But if you go to lectures, you listen to the lecturer, you may not agree with him and enter into dialogue, then you discuss the matter with the other students and the process of learning is active, not - passive.  

These are the conclusions from our reports. Five pilot studies were carried out in November 2008, then there was no money and we started again in the spring.

There were a lot of student protests in 2005 against the law on the foundation of your Agency and on the universities assessments. Why?

It was through ignorance. They did not know what it means to assess - the money came from the government. You say I need this amount of money and the ministry grants the money with no criticism. In most cases, the reactions against the assessment are politically targeted.

What does it mean that private capital will enter universities?

I do not know what it means. Universities around the world are trying to find money to engage in research. If the university wants to teach a strange discipline, a state in America would say - you have academic freedom go in and ask a foundation to grant. The university could be established with private capital and to be either for profit or non-profit as it is in America. The Faculty of Architecture in London is in existence since 1832 and is supported by the Union of Architects. Harvard, MIT - they are private, non-profit organizations. Everything the university earns goes for university research and for students services. It is the same in Cyprus but although these good universities require fees to be paid, in Cyprus the state gives money to good students to pay for their education. There are no universities that are good and aim to profit.

Those who talk about privatization could say that because the Dean will be elected by the board of trustees. But Deans will have responsibilities in this way. Now they seek responsibility of the state and the government for not giving money to them. But the Deans themselves have no responsibilities. Universities would say so far that they needed a lecturer; the state would approve this and would begin to pay for this post forever. So, this forms the cost per student. Let me explain something - to say that every student must take six subjects per semester. But one student would take three subjects, the second one would take two, and the third would take one and would do whatever he wants. These six subjects are equal to a full-time student. Americans and West Europeans estimate that the cost per full-time student is € 10,000 for example and give universities this amount for each student. This means that the university could have 10,000 students but only 5,000 are full-time. Now they have found an algorithm and say – the Athens University has 50,000 students, Thessaloniki has 70,000, the rest have 5000-10,000 and sum. But not all students attend lectures. This is like to build a hospital with 1000 beds for only 100 patients. The capacity of the universities is 50,000 each year - in fact 50 or 60,000 are enrolled but only 10,000 attend. There are more lecturers than necessary for those who attend the lectures. The others who do not attend could make a test on the computer. Electricity bills are paid, cleaners are paid, and a lot of money is spent for half-empty halls to function. That's the problem with the eternal student, because the eternal student obtains dash instead of zero if he or she doesn’t go in for the examination. A system should be applied that allows the student to go in for the same exam only twice for example.

I can not imagine someone suited to be an eternal student ...

If the parents are stupid and pay. They spoil their children. There are students who work but they graduate in these cases. What is wrong in Greece is that there was too much emphasis on higher education before and occupation was ignored. Becoming a good builder, good plumber, good fisherman, good technician - there are so many jobs and why pressure on a child with soul to learn and then become official at a bank or public administration? They all want to become scientists here in Greece. There is no sense of so many university graduates –  they are 600 000 including those who have not graduated yet. There are 1 million students and 85 million inhabitants in Germany.

At the end of the year we make a general report based on these reports. We submit the general report to the Ministry of Education so that the Ministry is aware of the first conclusions and therefore it wants to change the system, to improve it. We play advisory role.

Universities and research centres budgets were cut. What will this affect most?

Yes, there are serious cuts because of the financial situation of the country. You are forced to be thriftier, to have better management when there is no money. These are the expectations.

Will there be mergers of colleges and universities?

This is what the Ministry considers but this is not the problem. The point is that they are very scattered. First, is there a need of forty universities? There are universities like Harokopio having 500-1000 students and others like Thessaloniki, which is huge. There are universities like the Crete one that are scattered in hundreds of places.

But isn’t this beneficial for the local people?

Мore grillrooms and cafes are opened up, and more rooms for rent.

But students are provided conditions to deal with their studies – they are close to nature, there are not too many side things to deal with, they have new bases...
Have you seen students who do not deal with other things? No, you have not because they can not have a library as the one in the central university, second - these are not students from the same region. If they were from the same region it would be different. A student from Crete to get to Thrace must pay for transport tickets to travel and to see the family, he or she will rent a room and if the family budget is low - it is difficult. Some have free coupons, but there are costs overall. The only thing that will benefit the local community are grillrooms, cafes and rooms for rent, but this is not economy. You take money from one Greek and give it to another Greek. If these students – the spoiled ones – work and pick olives or fruit and earn pocket money, as do the students from Western Europe, they will help the local community. But the students have to be from the same region - Thracian University to bring students from the region, the Macedonian University and the University of Thessaly too.

What are the trends in higher education?

According to the European Commission and as developments in the world show, if you graduate pharmacy it does not mean that you will do that all your life. And you could study something now and do something else tomorrow. The current trend in Europe is that everyone could change the job 4-5 times which means that you could change the type of work. You could be a chemical engineer, working in a factory as director of production but the director of the enterprise leaves and they say they'll make you the boss. So you need managerial knowledge, not technical. We can not have specific professions at the moment.

The logic of the scheme 3+2+3 (three years for a bachelor's degree, two years for a master’s degree and three years for doctorate), adopted in Bologna, is to quickly get basic knowledge in one direction. This means that diplomas can not be specialized, so that universities should offer a degree of more general knowledge. For example, to get a bachelor's degree in economics you should study enough of administration, economy, advertising. And when you graduate you will decide whether you want to become an economist and do the master’s degree. Diplomas in Greece are very specialized, so we need to limit undergraduate degrees and increase specializations – postgraduate studies.


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