“What kind of reform is essential to higher education and why?”
The intensive public debate concerning the establishment of private universities in Greece is characterized by conceptual misunderstandings and a number of ideological obsessions on the part of their opponents.
It is argued that higher education is a public good and that it should not therefore become commercialized. Yet, according to economic theory, it is only the inability to determine public demand –in the sense that the free use of the good can be excluded– that characterizes public good. This is not certainly the case with higher education, either in Greece or in other countries, as in all cases a number of private institutions are actually functioning in the area. On the other hand, had it been a public good no one should be excluded from its acquisition, as it is now the case with university candidates who fail to pass university entrance examinations.As for the pending dangers from commercialization, one should look for its negative consequences not in higher education, which is mainly a vocationally oriented activity, but in pre-tertiary education where personalities are being formed and developed; yet, private schools are being allowed to function at this level providing high quality education.
The second argument against state monopoly in higher education is related to the state universities’ well known ineffectiveness in making the best use of existing resources; in providing value for money. Being actually directories of the Ministry of Education Greek universities have no incentive and capability to get rid of state bureaucracy and of the pressures exercised by several interest groups and to proceed to the necessary reforms.Finally, state monopoly in higher education promotes social injustice. By subsidizing successful university candidates (education is provided free of any charge) and hence by increasing their chances for a well-paid job after graduation, it increases the gap between them and the rest. The latter are left with limited chances in the labour market, while at the same time they contribute through taxation to the former’s vocational qualifications.On the contrary, the establishment of private universities presents a number of advantages. It would satisfy excessive demand for higher education; it would allow university candidates to study what they want, in the institution they wish, reducing at the same time family expenses for studying abroad or away from home; it would improve through competition the quality of the courses provided; it would make the distribution of limited public expenditure more rational and effective, as low quality universities would close due to the luck of students. What more, a high quality university system –including state and private institutions– would attract foreign students, as it is already the case with countries like Australia or even China.What remains to be done therefore is for the government to proceed to the necessary radical reforms along the following three lines: State monopoly should be abolished. Universities should become really autonomous from the State and, finally, the system of free provision of higher education should be substituted by a system of student vouchers. In the meantime a number of more acceptable measures could be taken, including the evaluation of research and teaching, which at the same time could serve as the basis for financing individual universities.