Consensus is crucial in certain key sectors for a country to achieve its full potential, and education is undeniably one of the most critical. Without a modern and competitive educational system, progress is limited. However, the education sector is also one where consensus is lacking. Recently, main opposition leader Alexis Tsipras promised to abolish the minimum entry requirement for universities. Although it sounds appealing and claims to address the concerns of ordinary people, it illustrates a key problem that the SYRIZA party faces in this sector. They are trapped in a trade union populism that is resistant to things like reform, performance evaluation, English-language postgraduate degrees, English lessons in kindergarten, and the establishment of model schools.
The changes that the party promises always tend to gravitate toward the lowest common denominator, such as upgrading technical educational institutes (TEIs) to universities without any preparation, abolishing the entry requirement, and scrapping performance evaluation. There are senior members of SYRIZA who disagree with these policy proposals and recognize that if they are voted back to power, there is no serious plan for education reform, only a plan to undo what was introduced in the previous four years.
It is impressive how ideological constraints and vested interests keep the left hostage in education issues. On the other hand, even PASOK under George Papandreou voted against changing Article 16 of the Constitution, despite the fact that the establishment of nonprofit universities was a high priority on his agenda. He was held to ransom by an academic establishment that never wants to be exposed to national or international competition.
However, putting Article 16 aside, what matters is that public schools and universities move forward and enter the 21st century. Here lies some major hypocrisy. Social mobility is needed for progress, and the public education system should offer opportunities for children from non-wealthy families to find their interests, become the best in their field, and secure good jobs. SYRIZA’s obsession with bringing everyone down to the same level will result in the privileged children of the Greek business and political elite continuing to have more opportunities and a strong advantage in the job market.
Although no one claims that miracles have happened everywhere in education, significant and positive changes have taken place. The risk in the future is that populist promises will dismantle them, whether the opposition comes to power, or some within New Democracy fall prey to the sirens of populism. We need to move forward, not backward.