Sunday, April 06, 2008

University of Cyprus taking a worthy lead

IN THE FIRST years of its operation, the Cyprus University seemed content with a rather low-profile, back-seat role in our society. Members of its faculty avoided meddling in public affairs or taking a stand on issues of concern to society, giving the impression that they were happy to operate in the rarefied atmosphere of their ivory tower. Many who had hoped the establishment of a university would help modernise our deeply conservative and insular society, introducing new ideas, fostering rational debate and breaking the stranglehold of the political parties, were disappointed by the reluctance of the academics to take a lead.

Perhaps academics needed time to engage in society, especially after the vicious attacks on the university in those early days, by politicians believing that they should exercise control over it. Things have changed in the last few years, with the university gradually making its presence felt in society, contributing to public debate, occasionally clashing with the politicians, undertaking initiatives and making suggestions on a range of issues. It may have taken a few years but is has earned the status of an independent, autonomous institution, capable, occasionally, of taking a leading role in our society.

This was made evident last week when the Senate, ignoring pressure from populist politicians and bullying union bosses, decided to open its undergraduate courses to students who did not sit the state’s university entrance exams. From the new academic year, it would allocate 10 per cent of its places to students who passed international exams, such as GCEs, International Baccalaureate and European Baccalaureate. This means the university will longer be a closed shop for state school graduates, for whom all places were reserved until now. The barring of private school students was a blatant case of institutionalised discrimination that needed to end.

The fact that only 10 per cent of places will be available for students who do not sit the state entry exams is also discriminatory, but it is a small step forward. Considering the angry reaction by the state school teachers’ union, which has threatened a range of measures, and the politicians, the University Senate needed to tread carefully. It may have been a small step, but it was significant in that the Senate has decided to turn the university into an institution of excellence, something that could only be achieved by opening up admissions to more students and creating greater competition for places.

In a country controlled by powerful unions, which actively promote mediocrity and low achievement, excellence is a dirty word.

This is why the teaching unions have reacted so strongly to the university’s decision and not because, as they claim, it would undermine the state school system – the pursuit of excellence is the biggest threat to the unions’ domination and control of our society, which they have turned into the preserve of mediocrities by eliminating any form of competition. This is, after all, the union which defends the appointment of all graduates as teachers, irrespective of ability, intelligence and commitment to the job.

We live in a country in which all state employees receive an ‘excellent’ rating for work performance at all times, because their union’s power would be diminished if the best-performing employees were rewarded with promotion. This crude levelling of all employees, in the name of equality, not only demotivates, but is the main reason that nepotism will always hold sway in the sector. When everyone is considered of equal ability, there can be no meritocracy and promotions are determined by political connections.

Unions and politicians want the university to promote this cult of mediocrity as well, even though they have been arguing that opening up admissions to more students would prevent poor students from obtaining a degree. The truth is that less capable students would be excluded, but what is wrong with that? Higher education gives rise to elitism, whether we like it or not. Why is there an entry exam for the university if not to identify the more capable applicants? And the greater the competition for places, the higher the standard of the student intake would be.

This is how a university develops a reputation as an institution of excellence whose degrees are highly regarded. The taxpayer is not paying for students to receive just a run-of-the-mill degree that would help them get a job in the public sector, but so they can make a contribution to our society. And if the degrees given by the University of Cyprus are valued by our society, the private sector will be queuing up to hire graduates as is the case in many other countries.

This is why everyone who wants our society to break with the cult of mediocrity imposed by the unions and start to value excellence should applaud the lead taken by the Cyprus University with its decision.

Copyright © Cyprus Mail 2008

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