ALTHOUGH the University of Cyprus has established a good academic reputation steadily rising in international university rankings, it remains on the fringes of our society. Many had hoped that its academics would take a more active part in public matters, raising the level of public debate, introducing new ideas and ways of doing things and generally contributing to the creation of a more dynamic society. This may be taking place at a very slow pace because the politicians and media people that set the public agenda do not want academics intruding in their domain.
The new Rector of the University Tasos Christofides (no relation to his predecessor) raised the subject in an interview with Politis Radio on Wednesday, when he said that the university produced a lot of ideas but its help was not sought. His colleagues had a lot to say about science, the economy and education, among other things, but were rarely asked to contribute on big issues. Decision-makers should ask for help and seek bigger participation in shaping of policies, said Christofides, citing the big education row that lasted months as an example of the reluctance of government to seek the expertise of the university, which has a big education department that could have made suggestions and given ideas on what needed to be done.
It was ironic that on the same day the new rector was saying this, the state radio station, CyBC, featured a discussion about the meeting of a committee that was addressing the problems that had caused the education dispute in the summer. Among the people invited to express their opinions were, of course, a union boss, a ministry official, a representative of the parents’ associations and the teenage leader of the secondary school students’ union. No academic was invited, presumably because the views on education of an academic were not considered as relevant as those of a clueless teenager, who, predictably, opposed the holding of exams twice a year, a parent with limited knowledge of education and a self-serving union boss concerned solely with the interests of his members.
And we wonder why the standards of public education are constantly declining. It is inevitable really, considering that it is run by civil servants, teaching unions, parents and teenage kids. Education is primarily a union issue, approached with union values and mentality, which also suits our union-minded politicians. Giving academics a say on such matters would threaten this mediocrity-worshipping world run by the consensus of the unionised and the politicians.
Christofides was careful not to cause direct offence in his interview, but his critique of the “obsolete education model that served the needs of the ‘50s and ‘60s,” was eye-opening. He referred to the “knowledge-centred model of education” that was out of place in modern society which demanded something completely different. Now, with rapid technological development the requirements were different he said. Education needed to focus on two things – skills and critical thought. Knowledge was so great now, it was much more important for someone to learn how to utilise it in order to produce more knowledge.
The problem was evident at the university, he explained: “We have the phenomenon that our students that come from public education are in a position to reproduce things they have learned but they have great difficulty in using what they have learned to produce something new. This is the disadvantage of the knowledge-based model of education.” The rector makes very valid points that we have never heard from reactionary union bosses and conservative education ministry officials that dare not rock the boat.
For the last 10 years, we have been hearing complaints that the curriculum was far too broad to be covered and that schools needed to focus on developing critical thinking, but nothing has been done, because unions and the ministry prefer to quibble about things that have nothing to do with education. In the last year the main education issues discussed, were the weekly teaching hours, the rights of contractual teachers, the retirement bonus, security at public schools, frequency of exams, school buildings and whether striking teachers should still be paid. This is what is discussed when union bosses are free to run public education.
Why does the government not use the education expertise that exists at the University of Cyprus to take public education into the 21st century and thus give students the capability to cope in the modern world. It would help society, which has stagnated, progress and move forward. As Christofides asked, “What education model do we want, do we want a model that reproduces the knowledge we have or a model that uses skills and critical thought to produce something new?” The government needs to answer this question, without seeking the views of the unions and parents’ associations.