Monday, 9 August 2010


The Hellenic Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education has just released its report into Quality in Higher Education (surprise!). It is both a window into the crooked timber of Greek education and a glaring example of quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Going only by the reception the report has received, one would imagine that the Agency is some kind of austere “expert group”, issuing tomes of doomed tough-love precepts that drip with lofty disdain for the world of mortals and their follies. How I would have welcomed that.

Instead, the Agency spends more than one third of its report listing all the rubbish presentations it’s given about its own work to “stakeholders” and whingeing about how the last two governments have not allocated enough money to itself and its contractors/consultants, or how audacious Treasury auditors have kicked back many of its requests for more taxpayer dough, thus getting in the way of the “absorption” of funds. In fact it spends more pages on this than on its findings, and the whole thing reeks of a sickening mixture of officiousness and advocacy. It runs something like this (pg. 11):

[...] it is very difficult to absorb National Strategic Reference Framework funds without the necessary administrative infrastructure and the right institutional framework. Thus, the operation of the Agency essentially relies on the selflessness of its members (many of whom, it ought to be noted, must also travel outside Athens in order to meet their obligations to the Higher Education Institutions in which they teach) as well as that of its small but committed number of secondee officials and staff.”  
How these people have the nerve to publish this in an official document I don’t know – perhaps they are secure in the knowledge that no Greek taxpayer will EVER bother to read the actual report. Anyway, they have found room among all of this drivel to publish a few nuggets of gold – nothing original mind you, but at least it is finally in print for all in government to read:

  • Vague human resource development goals at the national level 
  • Geographic dispersion of Universities that is unjustifiable on quality grounds, with some small rural towns and islands hosting singular departments within a University, and others hosting “twin” departments duplicated at the University’s nominal seat.
  • A proliferation of departments and degree programmes whose subjects are often vague and overlapping
  • A disproportionately high number of departments, programmes and students compared to the country’s population.
  • “Rubber-stamp” departments admitting students without having any permanent staff or infrastructure
  • Arbitrary development of specialisms and cross-disciplinary departments at the undergraduate level which ought to have been pursued at the graduate level
  • A large number of graduate programmes without clear admissions policies and no clear career paths, as well as poorly structured Ph.D. programmes., and insufficient specification of pre-requisite courses in either case.

The agency forgot of course to put their finger on the billion Euro question: are we spending taxpayers' money correctly? We know, for instance, that the basic reason for the pointless dispersion of universities is our conflicted and pointless regional investment policy. Universities = students = consumption and rented accommodation = natives of rural areas stay put instead of moving to cities and property prices go up. Want proof? Check out the latest stats. The only Universities in which enrollment fell lat year were in Athens and Thessaloniki.

As for the value of education itself, luckily some academics are earning their keep and looking into this subject - too bad they work and publish abroad. I am particularly indebted in this case to a certain Ilias Livanos (no acquaintance unfortunately), who has crunched reams of LFS data to estimate the returns to education by subject and type of institution. The report on this research, available here, includes the findings summarised in the table above. It also features the following amazing quote: 

“for most of the fields, besides those of Medicine, Law, Economics and Business and Social Sciences, the impact of a degree on the earnings of public sector graduates is strong at the bottom quantiles, yet declines as one moves up the ability/wage distribution. As the reverse seems to hold true in the case of the private sector, this indicates that an educational degree acts as a substitute for ability in the public sector, as opposed to the private sector. Such a result is consistent with the fact that market forces are less likely to affect the remuneration of individuals who are employed at lower-level state jobs, given that the latter offer automatic wage premiums to job candidates who possess certain academic qualifications.”

Are you getting a sense of déjà vu yet? You may remember one of my earlier posts on union membership:
" ... we’re the only EU country in which people with lower education levels are, ceteris paribus, less likely to be union members. So Union membership in Greece is not about protecting oneself from ruthless competition in a rapidly upskilling world where one’s place in the labour market is increasingly precarious. In fact, according to the same study, we are also the only country, along with Finland, in which people whose parents were educated to a lower level are more likely to be union members. Simply put, union membership in Greece is a means for those who invested in education in a bid to secure an advantage in the labour market to hold on to their status in the face of competition." 
The amazing thing is that, according to another one of Livanos' papers, the ridiculous wage premium secured by unions for graduates in the public sector are matched (not surprisingly) by substantial wage penalties in the private sector. The union-driven public sector wage premium sends more poor souls into degree subjects and specialisms that are useless to private sector employers, thus forcing the public sector to find positions for them.

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