Private Education in Limbo

As the American Farm School in Thessaloniki becomes the latest educationalinstitution to seek validation from a British university, the school'spresident, William McGrew, tells the Athens News that Greeks don't wantprivate education


IT WAS a wordless answer that said more than any speech ever could - a sigh followed by a protracted shake of the head.

William McGrew, the president of the American Farm School of Thessaloniki, had just replied to the question of whether he believed this parliament - indeed, any parliament - would recognise private higher education in this country.

McGrew has dedicated most of his working life to private Greek education.

For a quarter of a century, he was president of Anatolia College in Thessaloniki and, briefly, he was vice-president for the strategic planning of the American College of Greece, in Athens, commonly known as Deree.

Despite receiving no support from the state, the American Farm School in Thessaloniki continues to prosper. Its president, William McGrew (below), recently helped secure validation for its degree programme from the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff
Before his direct association with the American Farm School, he worked with that institution in an advisory capacity in the founding of its tertiary education arm, the Dimitris Perrotis College of Agricultural Studies, in 1996.

But perhaps his defining achievement was to help establish the post-secondary education branch of Anatolia College, the American College of Thessaloniki (ACT), which offers four-year liberal arts and business degrees that are fully accredited in the US.

And here he was, a man who has lived the battle for the establishment of private higher education in Greece - and along with it the recognition of the professional qualifications such institutions offer - effectively saying that he believes that all the talk of revising Article 16 of the constitution would remain just that - talk.

The explanation for the head-shaking was no more positive than the gesture.

"Because Greeks don't want private education," he said with a tone of unchallengeable finality.

While the mentality elsewhere in Europe, and certainly in America, is that private education is a good thing, he explained, there is a continued belief in Greece that, despite not inadequately achieving its purpose, public education should be the only form of instruction available at college level.

The consequence, he said, is that the likes of ACT, Deree and Perrotis College exist within a legal limbo where their status could conceivably be challenged from one day to the next.

Officially, such institutions are entitled to function as non-profit making, foreign-registered "centres for liberal studies" that are regulated by the development ministry. In reality, however, they only exist because the institutions from which they spawned - Anatolia College, Pierce College and The American Farm School's secondary school - were granted licences by the education ministry to issue secondary education diplomas.

Rich pickings: an employee tends the farm school's vineyard
Questionable future

It is hardly a culture that encourages private colleges to prosper. Some establishments, like the university of La Verne, Athens, have failed to survive. Another, the Athens branch of the University of Indianapolis, has had its academic standards publicly questioned, largely because - it has been claimed - to survive it has watered down its entry requirements in order to attract sufficient students.

"Even if [private colleges] were legalised, due to the peculiarities of the Greek law, the way they are set up means that the curricula they offer are malformed," McGrew said. "They can't offer specialist courses, such as pre-med, because the graduates won't get into Greek medical school. The same goes for law. So they have been driven into liberal arts and computer sciences.

"Essentially, they were pushed into the areas where the Greek universities were weak in the early 1990s. Then the Greek universities became stronger in these areas, and in IT and business in English. The way these things evolve, if [parliament ever votes in favour of] revising Article 16 and providing a model for recognition, it will be on the basis of those institutions becoming research institutions with graduate studies. These colleges won't be able to meet those requirements."

Article 16 explicitly states that all higher education in the country must be provided free of charge by public law institutions, which is interpreted as meaning state institutions.

If this sounds like an overwhelmingly negative portrayal of the future of private education in Greece, it is not intended to be.

Indeed, McGrew's outlook is fundamentally positive. "I fully believe that the model at Perrotis College, and at ACT and Deree, could make a tremendous contribution to the Greek education system, if they were allowed to function at their best," he said.

The common ground between these colleges is that they have all sought an association with a foreign accreditation agency or university.

Deree and ACT are fully accredited with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), regarded as the most demanding of the six regional American accrediting agencies and the accrediting body used by Harvard, Yale and MIT.

And, from September, Perrotis will be welcoming its first intake of bachelor of science students, having recently replaced its two-year associate degree programme with a three-year degree issued through the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (UWIC).

Continuous assessment

It might come as a surprise that, for Perrotis College, McGrew opted for validation with a British university, given that it was he who successfully secured the American College of Thessaloniki's accreditation with NEASC.

"It was for reasons of expediency to a large extent," he explained. "American accreditation takes much longer and in the case of technical education, like ourselves, it is even more complicated. Also, American higher education lasts four years. Four-year courses are not very popular with the Greek public."

The third reason sounds contradictory to McGrew's pessimistic outlook on the possible revision of Article 16. "We were also aware of the legal context of all of this and the fact that Greece may be obliged [by the EU] to recognise private college qualifications," he said. "This has been talked about for six or seven years. At some point Greece may have to."

The accreditation process involves an application for candidacy that includes a "Self-Study" - a detailed report outlining all aspects of the college, from mission statement to financial resources, faculty structure and student services. If successful, a second application is made, this time for the accreditation itself, which involves further evaluation from accreditation examiners.

"The whole thing usually takes at least five years," he said. "We did it in six."

The accreditation agency, McGrew explained, comes back five years later, and then ten years after that. It is extremely rare for an institution to lose its accreditation.

"With validation, you are linked to that institution from the very beginning," he said. "All aspects of the college are evaluated - the finances, the library, the faculty policies. They are deeply involved in your ongoing operation. They will have to approve your examinations and it is possible that they could amend students' final grades. At the beginning, I expect that it will be fairly intrusive and, as they become more confident in the operation, they will probably back off a bit.

"The interesting point with UWIC is that we were originally seeking franchise status, which would have involved a payment by us per student. We didn't know there was another option. But they were so impressed by the farm school and its ethos [the school's secondary education is free and its college fees are heavily subsidised] that they have offered to do it at cost. I expect they will be looking forward to some sort of exchange of students."

According to the Hellenic Colleges' Association, 16 British and one French university offer their programmes through private Greek institutions based on franchising agreements.

The irony is, therefore, that while the loudest opponents to private higher education in this country argue that such institutions should not be allowed to exist unregulated and unmonitored, many of those same colleges have themselves sought associations with agencies and universities abroad in order to acquire precisely such regulation.

(Posting Date 8 June 2007)

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