Greece: The Ideal Student Destination

JUL-AUG 2015|BY RAYMOND MATERA
Alexis Phylactopoulos, President of CYA / DIKEMES (College Year in Athens / International Center of Hellenic and Mediterranean Studies), discusses the vast benefits that Greece would gain with a focus on international education.

What trends prevail in transnational education today?

University level education has become increasingly internationalized in recent years. Student mobility is increasing exponentially as are faculty exchanges with institutions in other countries; on-line courses are mushrooming, international branch campuses are created, strategic partnerships are forged on a global scale, joint degree arrangements with schools from other countries are initiated, and transferability of academic credit is facilitated.

Study abroad is very much encouraged in the U.S., and in Europe through the Erasmus program, and it is seen as a way to train the future managerial and decision making class in international values. The U.S. alone sends nearly 300,000 undergraduate students annually to other countries to study for an academic semester or shorter programs.

How is Greece affected by these trends?

Greece is almost oblivious of these trends, with the exception of the International Hellenic University in Thessaloniki and a few post graduate programs in the English language in certain major public universities—programs which are now being threatened by the legislative initiatives of the present leadership of the Ministry of Education.  When it comes to study abroad in Greece, this is the domain of a few private, not-for-profit institutions but it is miniscule compared to the numbers achieved by other countries that are equally well endowed in cultural heritage.

The numbers speak for themselves. In 2012/13 the U.K. received more than 36,000 study abroad students from the U.S. , Italy close to 30,000 , Spain more than 26,000, and France more than 17,000; China had more than 14,000 U.S. students. How many did Greece have in that year? Fewer than 2,500. Greece ranks below Ecuador, South Korea, Peru, and Chile. What is wrong here? Is Greece affected by the economic crisis, which started in 2009, and continues? Is it affected by its tarnished image in the world press? I don’t think so. Perhaps it was, for a short period of time, after the violent demonstrations of 2008 and 2009.

For Greece the problem is one of mentality: we are constantly looking inward. By contrast, there is no American university that does not have the word “global” as a title of a department or service. For Americans, at least, looking outward has become a way to understand the world around them and to understand themselves.

Does Greece have any comparative advantage in international education?

Greece is blessed with several comparative advantages. It has a rich history and culture—very attractive to students of all disciplines, a fascinating ancient language—an epigraphist’s treasure trove. Every dig for construction unearths Greece’s distant past—an archeologist’s delight.  It is a country full of museums. What better place to study management of national heritage preservation?   Greece is at a stage of development where urban studies and sustainability studies are called upon to give answers to the vexed problems of everyday life.  Its location offers an ideal vantage point for the study of security issues in the eastern Mediterranean and the mass migration phenomenon, so pressing in our times.

What can be done to strengthen the Greek position in the field of study abroad?

Official Greece must recognize the enormous potential and embrace transnational education as it embraces the other two activities in which Greece has a comparative advantage: tourism and shipping.

The net benefit to the economy from incoming student traffic is by no means negligible. A recent study by Dr. Vangelis Tsiligiris (www.academia.edu/2374368), speaks of a potential of 20,000 to 50,000 international students per year with an estimated benefit to the Greek economy of € 300 million to € 750 million annually during the first two years. For this to be achieved official Greece must recognize the value and potential of international education and assist its development.

Does the Greek State assist student mobility into Greece?

It does not.  There is no legislation that regulates the activities of independent institutions, dedicated exclusively to servicing international students.

There are, instead, protectionist requirements that are excessive, such as the time consuming FBI clearance demanded of U.S. students, who also must furnish medical examinations and documented means of support, and all this for studies that often do not exceed four months. Upon entering the country with a student visa, one needs to apply for a temporary residence permit, having to spend endless hours in line at the Aliens Bureau, only to be issued a certificate stating that the required documents have been submitted. Students leave Greece long before the permits are issued.

Another impediment is that Greek labor law and the Social Security Service (IKA) have no provision differentiating foreign student volunteer interns from Greek employees. Many foreign students would like to offer volunteer work as interns in Greek companies, which would provide them with invaluable training in a global environment and enhance their curriculum vitae. Similarly, there is no provision for work permits for foreign visiting faculty on short teaching assignments.

How is the present economic crisis affecting Greece’s position?

The crisis is an opportunity for foreign students to witness history in the making.  Our institution, CYA/DIKEMES (College Year in Athens / International Center for Hellenic and Mediterranean Studies) has even introduced a course on the crisis! In this course, and in other similar courses, CYA offers students the tools to become  not just observers of the Greek condition but critical thinkers.

Students become familiar with the manifestations of a society in despair. For instance, observing the graffiti on Athenian walls provides an indication of the social forces at play. Furthermore, our students have a chance to assist, as volunteers, the work of NGOs dedicated to the relief of the homeless or teach English to immigrant children. The crisis is a great educational experience for foreign students.

What are the prospects of Greece as a destination for study abroad?

Greece has great potential. CYA/DIKEMES, for more than 50 years, has been an example of how to harness this potential. There are more than 170 practicing professors in U.S. and Canadian universities teaching subjects related to Greece, who were students at CYA. They were bitten by the bug, so to speak, of Greece at a tender age while at CYA. Overall, CYA has about 9.000 alumni who act as Ambassadors of Greece, translating Greece to others.

Greece can become a very attractive destination for students from other countries. This will bring multiple benefits. It will boost the economy and generate soft power by creating lifelong spiritual friends of this country.

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