E.U. presses Greece on private colleges

Greece is facing the prospect of legal action by the E.U. unless it satisfies Brussels that it will lift a series of restrictions on private colleges that are competing with state universities and technical colleges in the country's higher-education sector.

The colleges, which offer graduate and postgraduate courses on subjects from business management and law to tourism and hotel management, are not a homogenous group. Some, like the Alba Graduate Business School, are established educational centers from whose graduate pool local businesses systematically recruit. Others are newer, smaller institutions with less reliable academic credentials.

One of the conditions imposed on these colleges — to provide a €500,000, or $715,000, bank guarantee that would cover refunds of students' tuition fees and staff wages in the event of the college's closing — is incompatible with E.U. laws on freedom to offer and receive services, according to the European Commission.

Other restrictions, like the need for teachers at private colleges that have franchising agreements with foreign universities to meet certain academic requirements, constitute undue intervention by the Greek state, according to a letter from Brussels. The letter, dated Jan. 27, gives Greece two months to comply with E.U. law or face the European Court of Justice.

But behind the recent E.U. action is a larger debate between government and academic officials, who say that the private colleges are not a fair substitute for traditional state universities and technical colleges, and the colleges themselves, which say that the competition from the private sector is necessary to improve the state of Greek higher education.

Most of the restrictions were introduced in 2008, when the previous conservative government sought to regulate a gray area where dozens of colleges had been operating for years like commercial enterprises, obtaining licenses from the development ministry. Last summer, the current government called on all colleges to fulfill the new conditions to renew their licenses. In the autumn, it approved 30 licenses and rejected 10.

The Education Ministry said at the end of last month that it had responded to the European Commission's warning within the deadline.

"We sent a response, setting out our proposals which are aimed at respecting E.U. laws while safeguarding quality in the education sector," the ministry said in a statement. The ministry claimed to be "in continued contact with Brussels" and to have "a strong and well-developed line of argument to support the legitimacy of the government's position on the operation of centers for post-secondary education in Greece."

A spokeswoman for the European Commission said in an e-mailed statement: "If Greece's response is not satisfactory, the commission reserves the right to resort to legal action," adding, however, that "financial penalties will not be imposed at this stage."

While the conflict plays out, private colleges, for the time being, face another barrier. The Greek state does not recognize the certificates they issue to graduates as equal to degrees given by Greek state universities. It cites Article 16 of the Greek Constitution, which prohibits the operation of private companies in the higher education sector and which has been fiercely championed by university students and professors since its establishment in 1975, a year after the fall of Greece's military dictatorship.

"There is a massive clash between theory and practice," said Nikolaos Stavrakakis, a spokesman for Greece's university professors' union, known by its acronym, Posdep. "The authorities avoid tackling the problem because it's a political hot potato."

There has been one significant concession by the ministry. A decision in February grants graduates of licensed private colleges the same professional rights — that is, access to jobs and to membership of professional associations — as graduates from Greek universities.

The decision comes a year and a half after the European Court found Greece guilty of violating E.U. laws on the recognition of the professional rights of graduates of "post-secondary education centers" and has spared Greece a fine of €975,000.

The move could pave the way for up to 25,000 graduates of private colleges to acquire equal professional rights with their counterparts from Greek universities — a prospect vehemently opposed by university students, who say they fear it will compromise their job prospects and rail against the "commercialization" of the education sector on union Web sites and at protest rallies.

Costas Stratis, 24, who is studying information technology at Athens University, said private college graduates should not have the same rights as university graduates.

"We have not paid a private company to give us an education," he said. "We have worked for it. We have competed with other students for that privilege."

The Institut d'Études Francophones, known by its acronym, IDEF, has a franchising agreement with the University of Paris 13, one of 13 institutions making up what was formerly the Sorbonne.

IDEF's license was temporarily revoked last summer when it failed to submit the required bank guarantee on time and lodged appeals with the European Commission and a Greek court against the legitimacy of the government's restrictions.

Stylianos Amargianakis, the general director of IDEF, interpreted the European Union's warning as a moral victory for the college, which specializes in economics, business management and law and had its license restored in October.

"IDEF is both operating legally with a license as it submitted the €500,000," he said, "and it has been vindicated by the commission regarding its reservations about the law on colleges."

Some colleges whose licenses have been revoked did not try to meet the conditions, reluctant to offer certificates deemed inferior to degrees from universities.

Minoan International, a college on the island of Crete specializing in tourism and hospitality management, closed last August after six years of business.

"Would you invest four years for a course that will not be recognized as a degree?" said Antigone Polychronakis, who was the registrar at Minoan.

She noted that none of the college's students had problems having their studies recognized at the colleges they moved on to.

Other colleges worked around the restrictions. Eric Hofmann, the vice president of the Alpine Center, which offers bachelor's and master's certificates in tourism and hospitality, was denied a license last summer after 24 years of operating in Greece. His college merged with City Unity College to secure the €500,000 guarantee. "We had to find a quick solution," Mr. Hofmann said. He said the restrictions were incomprehensible during an economic crisis. "There should be efforts to bring in money, not to drive away investors."

The withdrawal of college licenses caused upheaval for many students. Panayiotis Zeritis, 26, who is in the second year of a three-year bachelor's course in hospitality management at the Alpine Center, said he had inquired about transfers to universities in Britain when he heard about the license problem last summer.

"I called the ministry to ask what to do and they couldn't tell me," he said. "Thankfully the college found a way to solve the problem."

Some say private colleges are the cost-effective answer for those wanting a foreign university education without the expense of studying abroad, as thousands of young Greeks do every year.

"With the crisis, and with tuition fees in the U.K. due to skyrocket, private colleges affiliated with British universities offer a solution," said Costas Karkanias, the head of the Hellenic Colleges Association, which represents 14 centers certified by the British Accreditation Council.

According to Mr. Karkanias, the government fears competition.

"The way we operate reveals to Greek parents the ills of universities," he said, referring to the crowded classes and lax monitoring of student attendance often complained about in the state sector.

But private colleges and universities are already competing, he said, noting that both charge €8,000 to €12,000 annually for postgraduate courses.

Many university academics question the quality of the education and premises offered by private colleges and say they should be regularly checked by the authorities.

"The worst Greek university has better infrastructure and staff than the best private college in Athens," said Mr. Stavrakakis, the professors' union representative, who teaches applied math at National Technical University.

He said he believed Greece should follow the example of Portugal, which has banned private colleges with foreign collaborations but accommodates a few homegrown private universities. Alternatively, private colleges in Greece should not be allowed to compete with universities but offer vocational courses for middle-range professionals, like assistant engineers. "Everyone doesn't need to have a university degree."

Other academics say that opening up the higher education sector to competition is the only way to improve it.

"No other public sector university environment in the E.U. is as self-centered as Greece's," said Jens Bastian, a senior fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy.

He said lack of competition had hindered innovation and led to many outstanding students and academics continuing their careers abroad.

"When did you last hear of a stand-out Greek research paper?" he said.

Nikos Mylonopoulos, associate dean of the Alba Graduate Business School, said Greece did not have to support colleges backed by foreign universities but could nurture "native centers of excellence."

First, though, Article 16 must go, he said.

"There is an enormous opportunity to prevent local scientific talent from fleeing the country and to repatriate accomplished scientists from abroad," he said, "by removing the ban on non-state, not-for-profit higher education and research."

(Published by NY Times - April 10, 2011)

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