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The role of education in Greece's economic recovery

If Charles Dickens was invited to write a novel for Greece today, he would probably probably start by combining the titles of two of his most renowned novels and second, he would start the writing of the story from the title:

“Hard Times and Great Expectations”


Distinguished guests,

Dear students,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good evening.

It is a great pleasure to speak in front of such a distinguished audience at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Professor Featherstone, I would like to thank the Hellenic Observatory, and you personally, for extending this invitation. It is indeed an honor.

As we have gathered here tonight, I would like to share with you a few thoughts on how we are reshaping and redefining our education system in Greece today, as the only responsible way of making sure that our country never looks back.

The “Greek crisis” as it was initially known, quickly became a European crisis and it threatened the entire edifice unless some new thinking was introduced and new measures were adopted. So first, a word about the European context and the strides Europe has made under the most adverse circumstances.

The crisis highlighted many inefficiencies within the European financial system.

The rules-based system within the Euro regarding Excessive deficit lacked the tools to manage and resolve the crisis. This exacerbated the markets’ response who recognized the inability to respond. In turn, the markets began to calm only after the agreement on the Financial Stability Facility and the eventual discussions for a formal mechanism dealing with sovereign debt crises.

These developments highlighted Europe’s greatest strengths.

First, it reaffirms that the creation of the Euro goes beyond narrowly-defined economics and politics. The creation of the Euro has been and continues to be more than an economic project; it is also a political and institutional process of integration aimed at achieving a dynamic equilibrium.

Second, it shows that European integration may be proceeding at a slower or different pace, than before, but it remains constantly on the move forward. Halting that forward movement would have significantly adverse effects of both a political and an economic nature. One need not explain the repercussion, implications and knock-on effects for the entire European edifice.

Thus, in spite of the Eurozone’s structural weakness and the Greek governments’ liabilities for its economic policies, the governments of the Eurozone could not passively accept such a historical defeat of Europe and rose above short term, and short-sighted, political predictions.

Third, it shows that the EU still has the will and the way of providing political answers to pressing economic questions and the ability for further institutional follow-up. As a case in point note how we moved from an extraordinary support package for Greece, to a bail-out fund for the whole of the eurozone and now to discussions about whether such a mechanism should become permanent.

I have traditionally supported the idea of more and better Europe and developments are very reassuring. Europe was faced with the challenge and the opportunity to be relevant and true to its principles and it seized it. European institutions showed a remarkable capacity to adapt. The European Support Mechanism and the current debate on a euro-bond are the natural results of this adaptability.

Before I go any further in detail, allow me to remind us all of Greece’s situation these past few months, since we assumed government, facts that are conventional wisdom and public knowledge all over the world today.

When speaking about the Greek economy, it is integral to recall the situation the present government inherited a little more than a year ago: an overwhelming national debt resulting from chronic mismanagement, a global image tarnished by lack of credibility and transparency, no credit faith, decreasing competitiveness and growing skepticism on and off the record from our EU partners. All of the above were linked with failed policies, a deeply-rooted clientelistic system which hindered reform, while protecting special interests linked to the election cycle.

As we may all agree, that was obviously not a good starting point. Great challenges were soon enough knocking on our door. We needed to address them in a fast, efficient and productive way.

We wasted no time.

From day one we rolled up our sleeves, got to work and within a few months we reached a turning point where doubt and disbelief gave way to global understanding as we are still striving to return to the age of acceptance.

As the year 2010 has ended, we managed to decrease the country’s deficit by an impressive 6% of our GDP. As you may understand, the scale and pace at which reforms are implemented is unprecedented and our recovery strategy is already bearing fruit.

We achieved this by switching to a multi-dimensional model of governance. Practically, this means that instead of focusing solely on minimizing our national debt, we chose to radically and simultaneously carry out a number of, I would dare say, revolutionary reforms on multiple fronts: the health system, justice, labor markets, social security, taxation and of course Education.

We still have a long way to go.

But enough with the past. As we try to envision the future, please allow me to speak about Greece’s promise.

This is Education Reform.

We have a saying in Greece which we have adopted as a national motto, which of course sounds better in Greek but I am sure its meaning is pretty straightforward in English as well. “We change Education, We change Greece”.

Notice that there are no conditional “ifs” in our motto. We leave no space for discounting policies.

With this very simple phrase setting the tone, we wish to cultivate a new mentality, a new way of thinking, as we reform education in order to make people believe again that Greece has never stopped being the great nation that it is.

In other words, a new culture that will never allow another crisis of this or even smaller proportion. Reforming education is the single most important policy change that can define the values and principles on which our society can flourish and our economy can be reborn.

What education can do for Greece, the Memorandum of Understanding with the ECB, the European Commission and the IMF cannot do. Education reform is free from the numbers pressed upon us. It is up to us to take advantage of this, I may call it, policy independence, in order to define a new vision and instill a renewed sense of mission.

We move along five basic principles for change:

First, children come first: Our Ministry cares to provide a high quality public education for all. We seek that each and every student, as well as their parents, no matter their social and financial background, regains trust and faith that the only barrier to a better education is their own potential and effort.

Second, as we seek for each student to excel, we are changing our teaching patterns and methods in order to make sure that students learn how to learn. The Great Irish playwrighter and co-founder of the London School of Economics, George Bernard Shaw once said: “What we want is to see the child in pursuit of knowledge, and not knowledge in pursuit of the child". We want young people to learn how to create, how to innovate, how to think critically, how to challenge reality. This is an essential prerequisite for each young person in order to become an active, invaluable member of society.

Third, we open up our Education to the world. We are redefining the links between the classroom, the local community and the international community. As we open up ourselves to the world, we bring technology to our doorstep.

Fourth, as we change our education system, we safeguard values that preserve character, such as compassion, accountability, integrity, responsibility, meritocracy, in order to reshape our sense of citizenship.

And as we try that, last but not least, we are in constant dialogue and consensus building with most political parties and stakeholders with a sole purpose: to create primary, secondary and higher education institutions with multipartisan participation, with decisions free of political bias and narrow self-interest.

It is our responsibility to do as such because we need to prove the relevance of politics and ideology.

And as we try to change our education, we also send a clear message that we feel responsible for what has been done and we intend to give back to the Greek people not only the lost ground but newer, higher peaks to be conquered.

Naturally, this is not the work of just one Ministry, but the determination of the political system to at least try for change, to decide and reaffirm that, politics aside, Education reform must not be played around with. It is the most important issue today.

During the last year we have made significant steps towards incorporating the aforementioned principles into our policies:

  • We radically change the curriculum and teaching methods in primary and secondary education. We move away from curricula which are decontextualized, academic, and overloaded with facts, towards approaches which present school knowledge through real life contexts and emphasis on the deep conceptual structures of each discipline. Education is seen as an explorative journey to new, fascinating, knowledge destinations. It is a process enhancing creative and critical thinking.       In that direction,
  1. a)We have already launched new curricula for 800 all day primary schools in all major urban areas of the country.
  2. b)We are designing the new curricula of primary and secondary education in all subjects and will be implementing pilot projects in about two hundred school units during the next school year, before their comprehensive introduction in two years.
  3. c)We also plan to change the university entrance examinations system so as to allow Universities a more active role in the selection of their students as well as a means to change the emphasis on the skills and competences evaluated.
  4. (a)Investments in ICT infrastructures and equipment (interactive digital teaching systems, laptops and other digital equipment in 7.500 schools, broadband internet connection for all schools, e-services like digital voice services, tele-education, video streaming and web TV in all schools).
  5. (b)Initiation of an Educational e-Platform and development of digital learning material.
  6. (c)Teacher Training for 103 thousand teachers (who correspond to 57.2% of the total population of primary and secondary teachers in Greece).
  7. (d)Digital administration for education replacing the fragmented 5 current data systems with a unified interoperable system as well as the creation an electronic file that will contain all data (students, personnel, equipment, etc) of all schools in Greece. The aim is to build the data so that it can be used for formulating evidence based policies).
  8. (e)Use of ICT in Special Needs Education.
  • We have decided to put our pencils down and speed up into the Computer Age. We envision and build the foundation of the digital classroom allowing Technology to take the students’ mind and literacy capacity whichever direction and as far as possible. Our digital school strategy constitutes a holistic approach regarding the integration of ICT in primary and secondary education. It is a systematic and comprehensive approach including specific, interrelated and complementary actions implemented simultaneously and in a coordinated way. Our strategy is subdivided in the following interrelated actions:
  • We give hope to those that wish to redefine their lives acquiring skills that will help them feel strong again as they try either as people unemployed, or as people left behind, to remind their families, potential employers and the Greek society that lifelong learning is as important as life itself.

Regarding Research & Development, although in truth, there are limited examples of homegrown Greek success, no one can doubt the inherent ability that is to be found in Greece.

I was amazed during a recent visit to Silicon Valley, to discover that in California the words “genius” and “Greek” still often come together. We are going to harness that power. To this end, scientists of Greek origin that have either worked in labs, or have assisted government policy, have come together and joined us in an effort to turn Greece into a national cluster. We aim to attract the best and the brightest as we offer them support, to develop projects, ideas and solutions for which our nation can sooner rather than later be proud of.

And most importantly I must say, we are challenging our future as we try to bring Higher Education into the 21st century. We have the will, we have a plan and the support of Greek society (political parties, parents, students and professors), which is willing to make the necessary sacrifices in trying to erase the rising uncertainty written in the eyes of every student who wants to excel but doesn’t know how as they cry out for help.

So yes, we have a plan:

First of all, we need to bring Greek Higher Education institutions into the international mainstream. International exchange programs, new programs, joint programs, visiting professors from abroad as well as Greek visiting professors in other countries are going to open the channels of communication and place Greece and its students into a global intellectual powerhouse. These opportunities are opportunities for excellence at the highest level.

Second, we will tune our Universities to societal and market needs. Knowledge is important, but in today’s globally competitive work and investment environment, the need for competitive skills is as great as ever.

Third, as commonsense as it may sound, we are setting up an evaluation and appraisal system for the entire higher education system. Through fairness and objectivity we aim to evaluate every department for its performance and every euro spent. Through mandatory standards, the evaluation will help define levels of public funding. An efficient and effective system for increasing our value for money approach in a time when public funding is scarce.

Fourth, by changing the administrative structure of our universities along the lines of reforms throughout Europe in the last decade or so, we are freeing the governance structures from many of the inefficiencies of the past. We are especially keen on improving the balance between administrative and academic concerns which under the current system often remain muddled.

And finally, by empirical research where it needs to be: in the hands of students, of all ages, as they challenge facts, test societies, run models, as they make a difference.

All these changes I have just described are pieces of the same puzzle that when put together form a contemporary, competitive education system and the image of a new country ready to move on as it builds a new future: One that is based on knowledge, innovative ideas, creative people and a new market force.

As I sum up, I would like to address this audience, and specifically speak to the minds and hearts of the Greek students present in this auditorium today. I would like to send you a clear message:

Although you have felt the need, as you have every right to do so, to pursue education beyond the borders of our country, I want to make it clear that Greece is a country that belongs to you as well.

It is our responsibility as a government to provide you with opportunity.

It is your responsibility when this opportunity is provided to offer some reconsideration to returning and joining the effort in reshaping our country’s future.

Thank you.

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Anna Diamantopoulou, 2012. Content is distributed with a CC A-NC-ND-Gr-3.0 licence

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