“ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ”: students defend Ancient Greek in curriculum

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The Union of Greek Secondary School Students have expressed their alarm at a statement by Greek Education Minister Nikos Filis, in which he hinted at a reduction in the compulsory teaching hours of ancient Greek in the high school curriculum.

“It is well known that Ancient Greek is the bedrock of a rounded education, and moreover it is an essential part of our national heritage. We are against any move that would threaten its teaching in schools, and we believe that 12 years is the ideal age to be exposed to it.” The students presented their position in detail, stressing the value of Ancient Greek not only as a foundation for better appreciating the richness of Greek culture and language, but also as a way to teach civic values.

Pressed to offer an example, Menios (Agamemnon) Atridis, 14, from the 2nd High School of Argos, quoted in the original his favourite passage from Pericles’ Funeral Oration from  Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars: “Φιλοκαλοῦμέν τε γὰρ μετ’ εὐτελείας καὶ φιλοσοφοῦμεν ἄνευ μαλακίας”, which translates as “We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy”.

To his friends’ riotous applause, he explained that this was not only a classic example of the art of rhetoric, but also a seminal exposition of democratic values. In it, the great Athenian General Pericles uses the occasion of the funeral for the war dead of the first year of the Peloponnesian wars to remind his fellow citizens why democracy made their city a superior power to oligarchic Sparta.

The budding classicist went on to stress the passage’s relevance to life in modern Greece: “Normally, the word μαλακία (malakía) would earn you a clip round the ear, but this makes it totally legit. I know the English translation sounds, well, a bit “gay”, but in Greek it’s even better because it means (whispers) ‘w*ank’. Get it? ‘We philosophise without w*ankiness’! That’s classic! Respect to the ancients!”

The students were outraged when they heard the statement by the Minister, in which he was recorded saying that teaching three hours per week of Ancient Greek and only two of Modern Greek in the first year of high school was “unnatural”. “Dude, did he really say “παρά φύσιν” (pará físin)? You know what that means, right? C’mon, it’s from Diodorus Siculus, it means literally “against nature”, as in, you know, “up the -“. At this point unfortunately the interview was terminated by an intervention by the Headmaster.

It is understood that many female students are also planning to protest against a leaked draft of a proposed “code of conduct”  for parents, which forbids the use of the word “princess” as a term of affection because “all children are different but equal”. “My friends and I are planning to march on the Ministry dressed as our favourite Disney heroines and sing “Let it Go” from Frozen over and over until Mr Filis relents on this unreasonable demand.”

 

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“ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ”: students defend Ancient Greek in curriculum

Black December, red pen

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ATHENS TECHNICAL SCHOOL (TEI): COURSEWORK COVER SHEET *

Department: Business Administration

Module: Introduction to Marketing

Grading period: Winter Semester 2015

Submitted by: Nikos Romanos, Panayiotis Argyros

Project: Write the copy for a marketing campaign to introduce “Black Friday” into the Greek retail calendar. “Black Friday” is a 24-hour period of sales held the day after Thanksgiving in the United States, but now extended to online retailers and traditional retail venues outside the U.S. where Thanksgiving is not celebrated. It has become common for shoppers to camp overnight outside the retail venues to queue for cheap consumer goods. Violence, injuries and even deaths have occasionally resulted from poor crowd control.

Grade: B-

Detailed Comments: Some sparky stuff in here, but 2,571 words is really excessive. You need to work to a 250 word limit – maximum! In my markup, I have suggested ways to improve and shorten your copy. Detailed comments follow.

Concept: I LOVE your idea of a month day of revolution, and I also love how you are able blend it with an anapologetically nostalgic appeal (“let us remember”): you’re saying “it’s new and radical but also familiar and comforting”. I can immediately see the cross-platform potential of spontaneous street actions: “direct action groups”, “public interventions” (flashmobs in downtown Athens and in the shopping malls, a social media campaign, we can Astro-turf the hell out of this one). Paint the town red, explosions of colour against the grey concrete! Very “Apple Mackintosh 1984”, classic!

Style: You have got the authentic touches here, you really seem to have studied your Bakunin, and absorbed that rich yet stilted language. You have a kind of vintage, steampunk thing going on. But we need to remember our audience. I think here we need to focus on the dynamic elements: “Youth!” “Spontaneity!” “Impetuous!” “Revolution!” “Explosive!” Short sentences! Punchy!

Content: I have picked out some of my favourite quotes which I think really capture the spirit:

“We are living the beginning of the end of the world as we know it” – I love this, it really highlights to momentousness of the occasion (and it would be momentous, in a country where “never on Sunday” is still a slogan in the retail space).

“Black December Friday is more than just a date” – I paraphrase slightly, but again, MOMENTOUS!

“The only possible alliance is with the world of probabilities” – a world of probabilities: how optimistic, how ASPIRATIONAL!

You really have a gift for evoking the joy of shopping: “the consumption of bliss”, “the windows of abundance” – really had me reaching for my credit card there.

I suggest you avoid describing violence and oppression directly. The tyranny of the current retail calendar can be implied quite powerfully using visual cues. Study how that Apple ad does it: they reference George Orwell and show riot police on American TV, during the Super Bowl. No-one bats an eyelid, no-one ends up in jail! That’s cojones!

Also: you quote several “alternative” poets to illustrate your points. In a multi-media context we can do this with musical cues. Nirvana would be my go-to music for this type of message: grungy yet “safe” for consumers; instant appeal for Generation X demographic, rebels with a healthy disposable income.

Logistics: I suspect a month of steep discounts would be too much even for a healthy retail client, hence I suggest we stick to the original “Black Friday”, but I give you points for thinking big.

Conclusion: Please don’t be discouraged by the red ink or the grade, this is one of the most promising pieces of work I have seen this semester. When you become available for work, I will be delighted to introduce you to my good friends at ¡Revolución! Communications, who are always on the lookout for talent – they have an interesting client list and your experience will be relevant.

 


* All external links are 100% genuine, everything in between in a fabrication.

The original text used in this exercise is a proclamation issued on the 11th November 2015 by Nikos Romanos and Panayiotis Argyros from prison, calling for a “Black December” of mayhem, vandalism and bomb attacks. The original Greek text can be found here, and translation was done for expediency by Google Translate – the surreal mash-up of nihilism, exuberance and half-digested jargon is mostly preserved. A time-bomb which detonated in the early hours of Tuesday 24th November outside the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises in central Athens, causing significant material damage, may or may not have been linked to this proclamation. The Christmas lights were lit 50 metres away in Syntagma Square that same evening by the Mayor of Athens.

Nikos Romanos is serving a 16-year prison term for armed robbery. He was a key witness when his teenage friend, Alexis Grigoropoulos was shot dead by a policeman in the Athens neighbourhood of Exarcheia in December 2008, an incident which resulted in extensive rioting in the centre of Athens. After the incident, Romanos went underground, believed to be hiding with various anti-authoritarian groups, until he was arrested in the course of an armed bank robbery in northern Greece in February 2013. He is also suspected of involvement in a number of non-fatal terror attacks. While in prison, he sat his university entry exams and gained a place to study Business Administration at the Technical School (TEI) of Athens. In 2014 he went on hunger strike to demand permission to attend classes on day release rather than by remote study.  His demand was not met. Sympathetic views hold that Romanos is torn between a genuine desire to learn and his ties to anarcho-terrorist groups in prison. This latest proclamation suggests that any rehabilitation effort is losing ground. This post imagines a more optimistic scenario in which the text has been misinterpreted, and where it is in fact a testament to the redemptive power of Business Studies.

Panayiotis Argyros is a member of the anarcho-terrorist group Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire (Συνωμοσία των Πυρήνων της Φωτιάς, or SPF), one of the latest generation of domestic urban guerilla groups which have been active in Greece since the 1970s. SPF have been responsible for a number of terror attacks and attempted attacks involving time-bombs and parcel-bombs against political and business targets since 2008. Argyros was arrested in November 2010 after a parcel bomb addressed to then French President Nicolas Sarkozy detonated in the hands of a courier company employee causing his injury. He is serving a 25-year term for his involvement in the organisation and a number of bombing attacks on political and business targets. Recently, a former Citizen Protection Minister in the previous Syriza/ANEL government initiated a judicial investigation by alleging that senior Syriza officials were being lobbied by imprisoned members of the SPF group, and that his life was under threat as a result of his non-cooperation.

Images: Daniel Acker: Bloomberg; seleo.gr via stoxos.gr

 

 

 

Black December, red pen

Essentials of the Greek national holiday – an illustrated guide

25th March and 28th October are the two Greek national holidays which are marked with great ceremony. The first celebrates the start of the revolutionary war against the Ottoman Turks in 1821; the second, known as “OXI day”, marks the anniversary of Greece’s entry into WW II by saying “No” to Mussolini’s demand to march through Greek territory. It probably says a lot about our national psyche that we celebrate the start of wars rather than the end of them – something of the small nation syndrome perhaps, a big “don’t mess” to would-be invaders. If you are Greek-American you may have been treated to this surreal video marking the “OXI day” with world leaders praising Greek courage with remarkable lack of context and self-awareness. I thought it would be useful as a counterpoint to give some flavour of what a national holiday is like on the ground in Greece.

The central event of a Greek national holiday is the parade (παρέλαση: parélasi), typically a military parade and a school parade held on alternate days in Athens and Thessaloniki, and local school and veterans’ parades in smaller towns and neighbourhoods. But don’t imagine a sombre occasion like Remembrance Sunday or a jolly one like the Fourth of July. The Greek parélasi is more “Eastern Block” in inspiration, but tempered with quintessentially Greek indiscipline and je-m’en-foutisme. Here are some of the essential elements that one can expect to find at a typical parélasi:

Slutty schoolgirls and the guys behind the cameras who love them

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Nothing says “the future of our proud nation” like a gaggle of 14-17 year old jailbait in fanny pelmets and stripper shoes strutting down the local high street like the cast of Showgirls doing St Trinian’s. Greek schoolchildren don’t normally wear uniforms, so this is the only chance they have to bend a dress code and they do it with a vengeance. This lovely compilation captures the enduring look, despite the uncharacteristically disciplinarian advice from one much-loved public figure. Please note, the girl bearing the flag will have achieved the top grades in the school.

Military hardware

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Tanks, aircraft, submarines, guys in cammo and wetsuits. Perhaps slightly tainted by the knowledge that it was purchased at a premium from the country’s creditors, through shadowy deals, is not always fully functional and is one of the few areas of state expenditure that has been barely touched by austerity. At the present juncture (March 2016) some might question the wisdom of having military aircraft “buzz” areas where some 50,000 refugees and migrants are sheltering, many of them traumatised children fleeing war. But hey, check out that loop-the-loop!

Women with hardware, aka. chicks with guns

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Two for one.

The human interest story

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The press always latches on to a heart-warming inspirational story, this year (October 2015) the small island school that showed its spirit by parading its two pupils for the benefit of the handful of inhabitants. It is now more common to feature in this category the children from immigrant communities that become flag-bearers by distinguishing themselves academically. This is a leap forward if one considers that only a few years ago an Albanian pupil resigned his right to carry the Greek flag at the parélasi “for the good of society” after his classmates and their parents occupied the school and halted lessons in protest.

The bogus controversy

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October 2015: Barriers at the parélasi. At the height of the anti austerity protests, parades were used as an occasion to confront and sometimes attack politicians on the officials’ podium, and as a result strict crowd control measures were introduced. The Syriza/ANEL government has made a symbolic statement of removing the security measures and creating a controversy over even the most rudimentary barriers. In the run-up to last March’s parade, there was a debate over whether or not to fly the fighter jets due to the cost; apparently this year the economy has improved enough for that to be a non-issue.

Politicians politicking

Ο υπουργός Παιδείας, Νίκος Φίλης (Α), ο δήμαρχος Αθηνών, Γιώργος Καμίνης (Κ) και ο βουλευτής του ΣΥΡΙΖΑ, Γιώργος Πάντζας (Δ), παρευρίσκονται στις εκδηλώσεις εορτασμού της 28ης Οκτωβρίου 1940, στο μνημείο του Αγνώστου Στρατιώτη, στην Αθήνα, Τετάρτη 28 Οκτωβρίου 2015. ΑΠΕ-ΜΠΕ/ ΑΠΕ-ΜΠΕ/ ΓΙΑΝΝΗΣ ΚΟΛΕΣΙΔΗΣ

October 2015: mainstream politicians used the occasion of the school parades to battle it out over the hot topic of VAT on private education. This is mild compared to 2011, when parades were invaded by teachers’ union protests (more subtle teacher activism is a constant feature – example: kindergarten pupils carrying “cute” protest signs like “NATO out of the Balkans” on a dove, during the Kosovo conflict). This year there were no big protests, but the anti-austerity spirit lives on in the regions, where the former soap-actor mayor of a town in central Greece used his speech to a local primary school to urge the pupils to honour the spirit of resistance by acting on the slogan “the lenders, the loan sharks and the mnimónia (creditor agreements) can go f**k themselves”.

Image credits linked in the accompanying text.

Essentials of the Greek national holiday – an illustrated guide

Trouble on the production line

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Greece is still managing to gain some revenue from its exports. Many of these are its natural products, lovingly cultivated and harvested by generations of Greek families according to traditional methods, and gaining well-deserved appreciation outside its borders. Many such products continue to provide income for the families and for the country. Notable examples are its olive oil, and two of its more exclusive items, mastic from the island of Chios and saffron from the crocus fields of Kozani.

At various points in its history, Greece has been renowned for its export of another natural product, also lovingly cultivated, fitting the description in the opening paragraph, namely its youth. The current crisis has resulted in an upsurge in the exodus of young men and women, many highly educated at great expense to the country and their families (calculated by the OECD at $23,701 per high school graduate, $37,429 per university graduate). It has been estimated that in the last 5 years well over 130,000 Greeks with university degrees have left Greece to work in other countries, and many others have failed to return home after studying abroad for a higher degree. Their talent is exploited, and their taxes are collected by their adoptive countries, and all Greece gains is an occasional accolade as a Greek scientist working abroad receives an award. This trend is likely to continue, but for how long can Greece keep up its production of this sought-after commodity to a sufficient standard?

Primary schooling starts at age six, provided by the state. Traditionally very young children in Greece were brought up at home with a large extended family ensuring that they acquired the skills needed to succeed and prosper. Even when young Greek women started working outside the home there was always a Yiayia, a grandmother, to take over. Then, with the passage of another generation, Yiayia was working, too, or was not geographically available as the wave of internal migration to the cities continued. Alternative forms of child-care had to be found, including baby-minders (native or “xenes” – how many foreign wives in Greece came originally to look after the children of Greek families?) and the “βρεφονηπιακός σταθμός” and the “παιδικός σταθμός” (vrefonipiakós stathmós and paidikós stathmós – literally “infant and child station”, respectively – nursery school), followed by νηπιαγωγείο (nipiagogío, kindergarten). In the beginning these were mostly privately run, although the larger cities had facilities for the children of civil servants, and some of the banks provided similar services for their employees. Eventually the demand was so great that the municipalities started subsidized preschool care, but with specific entry criteria. Kindergarten became part of the compulsory education for children between five and six in 2006.

All well and good – our budding scientists are headed on their course. The private sector burgeoned to cover the families not eligible for municipal childcare, or wanting something a little more imaginative for their children. The hours of state primary school often did not coincide with Mama’s work schedule, so a private school providing transport and additional “study time” was sometimes a necessity. And looking ahead, many parents started sending their children to language schools (frontistíria) in the afternoon, or arranging private tuition at home. A fragile balance seemed to have been forged, which ensured a steady stream of children to enter the next stage towards the “finished product” – high school – but that is another story.

Then The Wall came down and people from neighbouring countries were able to come to Greece looking for work and bringing their families. The Greek bubble economy of the turn of the century eventually attracted settlers from farther afield too. Their children, many born in Greece, changed the traditional nearly-all-Greek population of the schools and challenged the teachers who were not well equipped for a multi-cultural environment. The educational budget was being stretched. The private sector flourished further.

Come the crisis, and things really began to fall apart. Parents became unemployed. Mothers now find themselves in a Catch-22 situation where to enrol their children in the municipal preschool they need a letter from their employer, while to go looking for a job they need their children to be in preschool. Families whose earnings exceed a certain limit are excluded from municipal nursery schools, so have to spend a substantial proportion of those earnings on a private alternative. Or press Yiayia back into service.

Meanwhile the municipal facilities are in trouble. They are bankrolled largely out of European funds, but the austerity measures have entailed a pruning down of employees, including nursery nurses, preschool teachers, cleaning and security staff. The state kindergartens and primary schools find themselves in a similar situation, and the school year opened in September 2015 with no teachers at all in some kindergartens and schools, too few in others, and no special education specialists.

At the same time the possibility of a 23% VAT on private education brought the threat of transfer of thousands of children from private schools to a state system unable to cope with its present numbers. The government has now been forced to rescind the tax on preschool facilities and to reduce the VAT on other private educational establishments, to, for example, 6% for language schools and 13% for primary schools. So things do not look quite so bad (in a classic application of prospect theory we are so relieved to see our potential loss reduced that we treat it as a gain).

But we are not out of the woods yet. We must never discount the inevitable teachers’ strikes that will close down the whole system for days at a time throwing every family’s carefully juggled schoolday programme into disarray and playing havoc with the learning curve of the young brains.

It appears that the outlook for the continued successful cultivation of our prime national product is not sunny.

Image: Illustration from Greek primary school textbook c.1980.

Trouble on the production line

Groves of Academe

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I had planned to write something lighthearted, to balance out my recent posts on graft, tax evasion and general fecklessness at the top; but then I was sent this account and I couldn’t ignore it.

If you have experienced academic life elsewhere and find the internal politics tedious and the administration frustrating, this charming vignette of university life in Greece which took place last Monday should put things into perspective:

At approximately 10:30 in the morning, around 40 unidentified individuals entered the office of Mrs Mantzourani (Eleni Mantzourani is an internationally respected Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at the National Kapodistrian University of Athens (UoA) on the fourth floor while she was holding a seminar for 12 students. The intruders started insulting and threatening Mrs Mantzourani in an attempt at intimidation. “We know where you live and we’ll be following you from now on if you go to testify.” They leafletted her office and the School of Philosophy with two types of flyers, one containing accusations against Mrs Mantzourani and the other stating their views on the upcoming trial of administrative staff. Another lecturer who happened to be passing came to her aid, and the intruders insulted him too, while the Dean of the School of Philosophy who was informed of the incident arrived 45 minutes later. She was also insulted on the grounds that “you were selected by the Council”. After a lengthy dispute that lasted two hours in total they eventually left.

This incident was condemned in an open letter circulated on the university’s interal network and received very little attention in the national press (the account above combines the two sources). It appears that Eleni Mantzourani was targeted because she has been called to appear as a witness at the trial of a number of administrative staff of the university who went on a protracted strike in 2013, in contravention of a court judgement which had declared the strike illegal. The trial is due to start this Monday. The strike was called after just over a thousand administrative positions in Greek universities were eliminated in an attempt to cut spending, but also to reform the universities’ governance.

Since then, a new government has come into power, and the university administrators now have friends in high places. Those whose positions were eliminated by the previous government were summarily reinstated by ministerial decree in June, along with the cleaners of the Finance Ministry, another cause celebre of the anti-austerity movement. The new Deputy Education Minister, appointed after the September elections, is the former Chancellor (Πρύτανης, University President if you are American) of the UoA, Theodosios Pelegrinis. Prof. Pelegrinis was at the helm when the administrators’ strike shut down the university for three and a half months at the end of 2013, almost costing an entire academic semester. At that time, Pelegrinis lent his support to the strikers with understatement typical of his personal style: “I feel awe for the the strike by our employees, they are giving their blood to save their flesh.” Pelegrinis has also been an outspoken critic of the previous government’s reform initiatives, referring to the newly established institution of independent University Councils (Συμβούλια Ιδρύματος), of which Mantzourani is a serving member at the UoA, as “fifth columnists“.

This is a mere skirmish in the ongoing battle of reform and counter-reform over the Greek university system. It is no exaggeration to say that Greek institutions of higher learning are like an alien landscape to most students and academics in the developed world. In 2011 an international group of experts commissioned by the government of the day delivered a diplomatically worded but damning report on the state of Greek universities (controversial in some respects but irrefutable in others). The report noted among its findings that while Greece has one of the highest rates of expenditure per student among European countries, its graduation rates are the lowest; universities are not safe because their governing bodies are reluctant to use their powers to protect staff, students and facilities against politically disruptive incursions; that party-political influences have a malign effect on performance and allow a vocal minority to hold undue sway over governance. The report found that the Greek tertiary education system after three decades of mismanagement is suffering a crisis of values and requires not merely an overhaul of governance, but also a radical culture change.

The observation about security is pertinent here, and as I say, the report put it mildly. University authorities are reluctant to institute security measures or invite police on to university premises to deal with threats to people or property, for fear of being compared to the junta generals who ordered the tanks into the Polytechnic in November 1973 to quell the student uprising (ironically, the tanks that broke down the Polytechnic gates on the 17th November rolled in from the location that since the early 1990s houses the “new” Polytechnic campus, back then an army camp). As a result, facilities are routinely vandalised and walls covered with artless (only ocassionally witty) anti-authoritarian graffiti. Aside from the almost routine protests and sit-ins which disrupt the academic year, staff and students regularly fall prey to intimidation by political factions who operate with impunity in what is effectively a police no-go zone. Campuses are not only occupied in protest by various political factions within the university, but have become a safe haven for anyone looking to shelter themselves from the law, from black marketeers to urban terrorists. A few examples will suffice. In 2007 a post-graduate Physics student at the UoA was the victim of an unprovoked armed attack on campus in which a leading member of neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn was implicated (but subsequently cleared in court). In the Polytechnic (NTUA) campus a weapons cache was discovered in 2011 and subsequently linked to an urban guerilla group; on a previous occasion another local terrorist group fired an ΑΚ-47 out of the campus at a bus of riot police leaving their nearby headquarters; the police station in the residential neighbourhood on the opposite side of campus is protected by a high chainlink fence against petrol bombs thrown from inside the university. In 2012 a targeted police raid on the main building of the Αthens University of Economics and Business (ΑΣΟΕΕ) in central Athens confiscated contraband goods hidden on the grounds by illegal street vendors, along with gas masks, helmets, makeshift weapons and a radio transmitter presumably used by a different group of troublemakers. The “groves of academe” are clearly growing the wrong kind of fruit.

The UoA campus, where the latest incident took place, and the adjacent Polytechnic campus are set in extensive parkland. In a certain light, they bear more than a passing resemblance to recent photographs of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, where verdant nature contrasts with decaying buildings. Never more so than during the administrators’ strike two years ago. The strikers set up pickets and lit bonfires at the entrances to the campuses and turned away anyone who looked like university personnel or students (though strolling pensioners, runners and dog walkers were allowed in to savour the ghost town ambience).

But life does go on inside, students graduate, and achievements are made despite, not because of, the system. I recently caught the tail end of a TV debate in which two university professors disagreed vehemently on just about every subject discussed: politics, the economy, moral philosophy. But when it came to university education they were united in supporting reform. They were challenged by one of the politicians on the panel. “How come,” he asked, “if Greek universities are such a mess, do Greek researchers distinguish themselves worldwide?” “Genetics,” answered one of the profs. “You can’t defeat genetics. There will always be a 10% that will distinguish themselves in any environment. Our job is to help the other 90% and we are failing them.”

This week’s trial could be a test case on many fronts: how serious the university authorities are about protecting their staff and students; what the government’s intentions are towards education, and how far they are willing to go to pursue them; how willing anyone is to defend one professor against forty thugs; how independent the justice system is capable of being. It will be worth watching closely.

Images: Polytechnic campus building during the university administrators’ strike, 2013, courtesy of koutofrangos.

Groves of Academe

What’s the problem with taxing private education?

Sxoleio

In Greece, the real problem is that such a large captive market exists to be taxed – but most of the ongoing debate skirts around this fact.

One of the hot debating topics in the ongoing Greek election campaigns has been the imposition of 23% VAT on “private education” as part of the latest bailout agreement. The recently resigned government claim that they introduced the tax under duress from the country’s creditors, and that the alternative was 23% VAT on beef – the implication being that they chose to tax the elite minority rather than the carnivorous masses. The opposition has retaliated by claiming that this is part of an ideologically-motivated “war on private education”, that rather than taxing the wealthy the measure will affect the majority of families with school-age children, and that it will put thousands of workers in a “crucial economic sector” out of work. Cynics say it was just another clumsy tax grab to make up the numbers without putting our new best friends the French beef exporters’ noses out of joint. And of course since it is election time, it would be naive not to consider the element of vote trading (public sector teaching jobs vs. private sector businesses, the education vote vs. the meat vote). There is now a race to repeal this controversial tax, whether because of the 120,000+ strong petition against it, or because of a very public lack of support from the European Commission; but having staked out the positions, the debate rages on as the school year is about to begin.

The elephant in the room is this: “private education” in Greece is not an elite pursuit but a forced necessity; this much the opposition have got right, and this is why they are winning the argument so far. To use an English perspective, the market for private education in Greece is not the same as the aspirational middle class parents who send their children to St Paul’s or Westminster, let alone the toffs who get their heirs on the list for Eton. Only 5-8% of Greek children in primary and secondary education go to a full time private school. But up to 80% of school children at any given time get private tuition in foreign languages throughout their school years, and coaching in exam subjects in the final years of high school, either one-to-one (ιδιαίτερα) or at private tuition schools (φροντιστήρια), in addition to their full-time schooling. Private education is clearly not a luxury but an additional cost that parents feel obliged to shoulder to give their children a good start in life, regardless of their own economic ability and regardless of the children’s academic aptitude.

University entry results were announced last month, and the press partook of the annual ritual of interviewing the top entrants. Here is what the top scoring student in the country had to say about his study technique: “I went to the φροντιστήριο for several hours a week, because without it my knowledge would be insufficient, but I also studied many hours by myself” [my italics]. The necessity of the φροντιστήριο is tacitly acknowledged by the emergence during the crisis of “social” φροντιστήριο in many local authorities, staffed by volunteers, to help low income families keep up with the competition.

However, in the longer term a policy of defending the φροντιστήριο industry is just as wrong as taxing it, because it is both a symptom and a cause of bigger problems with public education. It is of course a vicious cycle. School teachers have learned to assume that their pupils are receiving out-of-school coaching (and many teachers in state schools “double dip” by offering out of hours tuition to supplement their income); the pace and the quality of their teaching reflects this assumption; all pupils, and particularly those who aren’t receiving private tuition, suffer from substandard and perfunctory teaching. School attendance in the pre-exam period has come to be regarded as optional, as the private tutors dictate the cramming schedule. This is just one of a number chronic problems that render the state system dysfunctional and inadequate for those who have no choice but to rely on it, and drive the minority who can afford it into full time private education.

The existence of a parallel education system alongside taxpayer-funded, constitutionally-guaranteed, universal education is so hard-baked into modern Greek life that it is entirely by-passed in this latest debate. Both sides are fighting over a 23% cut of a market that would not even exist but for decades of dereliction of duty by every shade of government. When it comes to the big picture, both sides have got it totally wrong. If you care about education and believe that it should be a public good rather than a commercial service, you should make sure you spend people’s hard-earned tax money on a working state school system – only then can you tax private education as a luxury. If on the other hand you think it is beneficial to provide choice and competition by allowing private enterprise to provide education alongside the state, it shouldn’t be at the expense of those who can least afford it.

Image: State school classroom after student takeover, from Mega Channel.

What’s the problem with taxing private education?