By Angelos Anastasiou
A BARELY 25-year-old university making it onto the global map of top schools is no small feat. It’s proof enough that at some point in its brief history, a good job was done – and here’s a phrase not often said in our corner of the world.
But even a nominal interest in the affairs of the University of Cyprus (ranked 296th among over 3,000 universities in the European Union, and 830th globally, according to the Webometrics Ranking of World Universities) should have tipped the reader that in a little over two short decades, and against all odds, the island’s top academic institution has managed to overcome daunting challenges dating back to before it was even up and running.
When Nelli Tsougiopoulou was appointed at the helm of the committee to set up the University in 1989, amidst severe opposition from a surging nationalist front that would not tolerate an institution that would promote Cypriotness (at the expense of Greekness), her task seemed impossible.
But, by all accounts ranging from her peers on the committee to then-President George Vassiliou, her indomitable drive and persistence created something from nothing – what we know now as the University of Cyprus.
Good jobs rarely get done by themselves, and the UCy is no exception. Its astounding success, which has translated into near-universal recognition of its status as a symbol of meritocracy in a country so surrendered to its deep-rooted ethos of corruption that it barely raises an eyebrow any more, can be traced back to a handful of people like Tsougiopoulou.
The Sunday Mail met with Rector Constantinos Christofides, who has been there since the very early days, and can attest to the sheer force of his vision as testament to the school’s blinding prospects.
The devastating banking meltdown of 2013 that brought the Cyprus economy to its knees has left behind a dystopian economic environment that could be visualised as a formerly buzzing and prosperous city, post-carpet-bombing.
To say that no major projects are being undertaken would be an understatement. Against this backdrop, the UCy has secured a €162-million loan from the European Investment Bank, which it will use to expand and upgrade its campus.
“We will build the Apollo photovoltaic park, the Polytechnic School, the university’s Energy Centre, the Biology School, the Medical School, the expansion of the Nursing School at the Nicosia General, and we will finish the library,” said Christofides. “We will invite tenders for the three theoretical schools – the faculties of Letters, Social Sciences and Education, and Humanities – as well as the Institute of Research, Innovation and Enterprise.”
Currently, the UCy is renting space all over Nicosia to accommodate the above schools and institutes – not an ideal arrangement, especially given the unreliable local network of mass transportation. Even less so for foreign students attending classes at the UCy through the EU’s Erasmus programme, whose number Christofides hopes to increase drastically.
“These kids visiting Cyprus will serve as ambassadors of this university,” noted Christofides with a twinkle in his eye that was to become familiar over the course of the interview, signaling every turn of the discussion to the future.
“It will create a parallel vista of economic activity – foreign students renting flats, spending money, and so on. More importantly, many of them will remain as postgraduate students. But the real bonus is that they will inject the culture within the university itself. We want our students to come into contact with them – we want that osmotic process. And of course we want our own students to go abroad and spend six months or a year, be exposed to other cultures and other countries – because the new Europe will be built from the bottom up, by young people.”
World Bank data indicates that Cyprus ranks among the last countries in the ratio of research and development expenditure relative to the country’s gross domestic product – a paltry 0.47 per cent that seems embarrassing compared with those of the usual suspects: the Scandinavian countries, northern Europe and the States.
“We rank dead last in the European Union in research spend,” the Rector acknowledged ruefully. The twinkle was gone, but only momentarily. “But that has not stopped us from good research performance – the 2014 EU Innovation Scoreboard ranks Cyprus 13th out of 28 EU member states. The UCy leads Cypriot institutions in absorbing research funds, and out of 12 European Research Council grants secured in Cyprus, 10 were won by UCy researchers.”
Still, 0.47 per cent of GDP expenditure on research is hardly evidence of a forward-looking state that wants to invest on its people. Sure, times are tough and the state’s coffers are empty, but the situation was no different even when they weren’t.
And, responding to an unrelated question (“What would be the first thing you would do if resources weren’t scarce?”), Christofides seemed to offer valuable insights as to why.
“The single most pressing need is the need for a new law,” Christofides said, the twinkle reappearing. “One that would enable the UCy to create hi-tech industries – that is, establish enterprise at the UCy. Also, one that would enable us to choose our own students.”
At present, students are admitted through education ministry exams that exclude private school students. The university wants to expand its recruitment capabilities to attract the best from both public and private schools. The aim is to create a self-sufficient university.
“We don’t want to be a state-funded institution. We want a creative university that can meet modern challenges, and I believe we can achieve financial independence by 2020, so that the UCy no longer requires state funds. And I want a law that can help us bring back the best minds Cyprus has driven abroad, those 300 brilliant Cypriot scientists – Greek and Turkish Cypriots – that are currently working outside Cyprus.”
But what could possibly stand in the way of such lofty ideals, savings in government spending, and reversing the brain-drain?
“Some deputies,” he said flatly. “You know, it’s like Einstein said: great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.
In our country, commercial enterprise has always been a dirty word, and these are complexes that we need to overcome. These people just don’t realise the potential that can be unleashed by connecting science, research, innovation and enterprise.”
At this point, Christofides’ vision of repatriating Cypriot scientists included a thinly-veiled insight to his vision of the UCy as a place of togetherness, cooperation, and achievement. But as grand as this vision is, it is only a microcosm of his utopian dream.
The rector is political, so political, in fact, that he believes – rather bizarrely for a trained physics doctor – that even science is political. Sure enough, the twinkle returned.
“The rector at the country’s largest academic institution is not only allowed, but obliged to speak his mind,” he responded when we asked whether he feels entitled to air his political views publicly.
“I believe that a university is also an opinion maker. And I believe that science unites people. In my vision, the country will be reunited not through partisan election agendas but in the lab, in think tanks, in the library. Some day, I expect to see in our labs students from all Cypriot ethnic groups – Greek Cypriots, Turkish Cypriots, Maronites, Armenians and Latins. Because Cyprus’ power is its cultural pluralism.”
So deep-rooted is Christofides’ belief in the concept of commonness that he has even devised an amusingly simple analogy to the UCy’s role in the bigger picture – that glorious future he can see as clear as daylight.
“What is important, and somewhat symbolic, is that the UCy is located in the most strategic spot in Cyprus,” he said. “The old Nicosia-Larnaca road passes right by it. The road to Kyrenia, hopefully in the near future. The Nicosia-Famagusta road, two kilometres over. The Nicosia-Limassol highway is a few minutes away. The UCy will become the meeting point for young students, and we will build a new common country there. And sure, I know we are going through tough times that breed pessimism, but let us always remember that the darkest hour is just before the dawn.”
And, after those words, the twinkle in his eyes seemed to linger.