Greek Universities Face Low Graduation Numbers

The government hopes to address the issue of high enrollment and low graduation numbers by way of constitutional amendments and budget increases – but will these measures be enough?

Greece has a unique problem – despite a high number of students being enrolled in university, only a small percentage of them are graduating. A 2017 report from the Hellenic Quality Assurance and Accreditation Agency (ADIP) indicated that approximately 735,027 undergraduate and postgraduate students, or 6.83 percent of the country’s population, were registered at an institution of higher learning.

This percentage is misleading, however. When comparing the ratio of graduates to the population of the student body, Greece currently ranks last within Europe. And in ADIP’s report, graduation rates stood at 9.41 – a good 14.74 points below the EU average – suggesting that university attendees are either ceasing to attend classes or dropping out altogether.

The Eternal Student and University Reforms

Those in the Greek educational system often refer to the concept of the “eternal” student – a unique idea that doesn’t apply to other European countries, though many member states also offer low-cost universities.

But in a speech made to parliament last year, Education Minister Niki Kerameus announced that the country must stop allowing students to remain enrolled indefinitely and advised setting a limit on the amount of time a student could stay in the system. One senior ministry official said, “The decision was taken in the context of trying to cut back on waste. Above all, our intention is to have a clear, disciplined framework for the completion of studies.”

In December 2019, Kerameus began overhauling the system and created a National Authority for Higher Education, which looks at how universities perform and then promises to deal with those faculties accordingly. The plan also sets aside 20 percent of the country’s budget for universities, but this money will only be given if the administration follows certain criteria in a process the ministry calls “performance-based funding”. Kerameus has said that “the country is turning a page in education and that the reform plan will consider “transparency, objectiveness, meritocracy and the decentralisation of power”.

In a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), statistics indicated that the money spent per student in Greece is, on average, lower than in the rest of the European Union. The numbers also show that while professors are working more hours, they’re being paid less. If universities are able to “cut waste” by eliminating the eternal students, Kerameus believes there would be a greater budget to assist those who attend consistently and plan to graduate.

Greece’s education minister Niki Kerameus announced to parliament last year that the country must stop allowing students to remain enrolled indefinitely. In December 2019, she created a National Authority for Higher Education, which aims to analyze how universities perform and deal with those faculties accordingly. Copyright: Alexandros Michailidis /

Reform in the university system is a battle that Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his New Democracy-led government have been fighting for years. When Syriza was in power under former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, the party refused to consider amendments to Article 16 of the constitution, which bans the establishment of private non-profit universities in Greece (this is the only country in the European Union that has this policy). Instead, the previous government’s stance was that students should not face pressure to complete their studies – a mentality that would not be feasible in a private university system.

Despite constitutional restrictions, Greece has a large number of privately-run institutions offering undergraduate and graduate degrees, yet these colleges, for the most part, are run as faculties or franchises of foreign universities.

In early 2019, before becoming prime minister in Greece’s snap elections, Mitsotakis brought up the need to reform Article 16 during a debate over constitutional revisions. He noted that his party was looking to address the country’s needs within a contemporary context and explained that “Our central proposal is the revision of Article 16 that has, unfortunately, held our country back for 44 years. The state must guarantee good quality public higher education, providing opportunities for everyone.” Mitsotakis believes this concept goes hand-in-hand with creating opportunities for private, non-profit educational institutions to establish themselves in Greece.

Many professors stand behind this amendment. In an open letter to Syriza and Tsipras in December 2018, educators requested changes to Article 16 following Syriza’s rejection of reforms: “Greece is unique in this: It is the only country in Europe, if not the entire world, where the average lawmaker does not have the freedom to regulate the status of universities in accordance with the educational, social and cultural needs of the time, as well as the priorities of the majority of the time. On the contrary, they are strictly limited by the constitution.”

Greece is not the only country facing a need to reform an outdated university system.

In Italy, former Education Minister Lorenzo Fioramonti decided to step down when the government passed a 2020 budget that excluded increased education spending. His ministry was split into two parts with two new ministers, which one critic has said “was a choice dictated by the exigencies of political balance rather than by a logic of rationalisation” because the two ministers “satisfy the two major political forces in government”.

And while Spain has seen some increased spending for their higher education, the country has struggled with the need to reform policies, including red tape on international instructor recruitment. Both Italy and Spain have newly elected ministers, and whether their governments will be successful in implementing major and necessary changes remains to be seen.

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Katherine Whittaker

Katherine is an Athens-based writer and videographer. Formerly the digital editor at SAVEUR Magazine, she now freelances, focusing mostly on the intersection of food and politics or culture. She earned a dual Masters degree in journalism and European studies from New York University.

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