THE NUMBER of students attending universities and tertiary institutions in Cyprus was at a record level in the last academic year, reaching a total of 44,446 people of whom 52.54 per cent were Cypriots. The number of Cypriots in higher education here has almost tripled in the last 20 years. In the academic year 1996-97 there were 8,307. The growth in the number of foreign students is even more astonishing, increasing over the same 20-year period from 1,675 to 21,093.
The figures, which were released by the education ministry, give an impressive picture but it is not a complete one as regards Cypriots students. The ministry gave no details about those studying abroad so we could have an idea of the total number of Cypriots at universities, bearing in mind the very large number that obtain degrees in Greece. Figures of students abroad would give a better idea of the actual number of university graduates that enter the job market every year and help answer the big question of whether there are more graduates than the economy can employ.
This is what the government should be looking at when it releases statistics like the above instead of just using them for bragging purposes ahead of presidential elections. It was no coincidence that a pro-government newspaper reported the stats with a glowing article claiming that “Cyprus is slowly-slowly being turned into a European centre of higher education, as year on year, more students, local and from abroad, choose it for their studies.” We have grown accustomed to this lack of perspective born of our insularity. There are European cities with more than twice as many university students as there are currently in Cyprus, so we have a very long way to go before we could claim to be a European centre.
The growth in the number of students from abroad over the last 20 years is impressive, but again a breakdown of the numbers would give us a better idea of the reported progress. For instance, of the 21,093 foreign students, 66 per cent were from EU countries but it would be interesting to know how many of these were from Greece in order to establish whether our universities are attracting people from other EU states. Perhaps, the growth area is students from third countries, who at present are only 16 per cent of the total student population, but this would require a change of policy from the state, which reportedly sets very tough requirements for issuing student visas.
Statistics are a very useful tool for policy-makers when used for setting targets and identifying and tackling weaknesses. It seems the government is only interested in using them for bragging purposes, even though the latest set of stats should provide food for thought regarding youth employment and the value of university degrees. For instance, politicians never tire of reminding us that youth unemployment is extremely high – when unemployment overall was 12.3 per cent in March, youth unemployment was 29.6 per cent.
Was this because no new jobs were being created or because many youths were looking for jobs related to the degree they held? It was probably a combination of the two, but if the government had a policy for combating youth unemployment, it would have been analysing such data.
A couple of months ago, the Cyprus Institute of Statisticians found that 26.6 per cent of 18- to 28-year-olds intended to go abroad in search of better employment prospects. Again it was not clear how many of these were university graduates, but it would have helped to have this information, in order to establish whether we have too many graduates.
We often like to boast about the high proportion of university graduates in Cyprus but this is another stat in need of analysis. How many of these graduates are employed in jobs related to their degree, assuming they have a job? At present, the most popular degree course in Cyprus, according to the education ministry, is Business Studies/Management, followed by law and accounting, indicating that most youths choose degree courses believed to have high earning potential rather than broader educational value. This is perfectly understandable, but again some analysis of the data would be helpful not only to policy-makers, but also to youths trying to decide what course they would want to follow and whether it is worth their while to attend university.
The government would be performing its job much better, shaping policy rationally and offering a service to citizens if it analysed the stats it produced rather than using them exclusively for superficial boasting.