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September 19, 2011 12:48 am

Greece: looking for a bright side

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Angry generation: an anti-austerity protest in Athens

The economic crisis in Greece is taking a heavy toll on local companies, steeply reducing demand for highly qualified executives.

Large companies are downsizing, while the small and medium-sized businesses that dominate the private sector are struggling to survive.

Yet the handful of Greek business schools, which have a combined annual intake of 800-900 students for MBA programmes, are proving surprisingly resilient. One reason is that more young Greeks are opting for a domestic institution, given circumstances at home and the cost of studying in the UK, the most popular MBA destination.

Another reason is that legislation to prise open the Greek state’s formal monopoly of higher education is making its way through parliament. According to Anna Diamantopoulou, the education minister, the law – due to be approved this month – will allow sponsors from the private sector to fund graduate programmes at state universities.

“We are opening up the universities to the private sector – they will be able to co-operate with individual companies and accept sponsorship and donations,” she says.

The former European commissioner admits there is no timetable for lifting Greece’s constitutional ban on private universities, which has constrained the development of business education. But analysts say the government’s policy of back-door liberalisation could unleash pent-up demand for high-quality offerings.

Diamantopoulou says: “We hope the legislation will encourage universities to expand graduate studies in business, technology and science, and attract Greek academics who have made careers abroad.”

The law should also make life easier for private business schools that are not fully recognised by the Greek state. Alba Graduate Business School, for example, offers Amba-accredited degree courses run by academics who have studied and taught at leading institutions abroad, but is unable to win parity status with the state universities.

Professor Nickolaos Travlos, dean, says: “Greece has excellent human capital, but our potential for development has been adversely affected by the overall operating environment.”

One business school belonging to a state institution has shown what can be achieved in challenging times. The MBA programme at Athens University of Economics and Business is designed for about 50 students with 3-5 years’ work experience. Last year, just more than half the intake were Greeks, with the remainder coming from 13 countries. About 95 per cent of students found a suitable job within two months of graduating.

AUEB operates from a “no-frills” campus covering several unassuming buildings in a gritty downtown Athens district. “We do need a bigger campus. Our amphitheatre only fits 50 people, for example,” says Professor Gregory Prastacos, rector and director of the international MBA programme.

Despite the recession, the course is oversubscribed, with international applicant numbers stable and “Greeks just a bit lighter”, says Prof Prastacos.

AUEB has led the way in attracting international students to its courses, a move seen as critical to the development of business education in Greece given the country’s comparatively limited number of corporate employers.

Other reasons for “internationalisation” include being able to assist Greek companies operating abroad, and as a tool for quality and culture improvement, for both students and faculty.

Greece’s current predicament could even attract students from abroad, Prof Prastacos argues. “It’s a unique opportunity to study a crisis, both during and within it ... It’s in periods of crisis that conditions and foundations for future opportunities are created.”

AUEB has built links with China and India at government level partly through leveraging the fact that each of these three countries possesses an ancient cultural heritage. China’s Confucius Institute has made AUEB its third base in Europe for business and economics education, along with the London School of Economics and Political Science and the Copenhagen Business School. Following a conference in Athens on management through the lens of ancient eastern and western philosophy, a Confucius-AUEB research institute is being set up in Beijing.

The Indian government has funded a chair of international entrepreneurship at AUEB, one of 30 worldwide, which has recently been renewed for another three years.

Yet the school is not seeking to attract a flood of students from Asian countries, although Prof Prastacos would like to expand the MBA programme to about 150 students. “We are not aspiring to large numbers,” he says.

Another tie-up, this time with the University of Kent in the UK, highlights what Greek business schools hope will become an increasingly important part of their offering: joint degree courses with European universities in areas relevant to Greece – shipping, tourism and heritage management.

Professor Evangelos Kyriakidis, a Greek archaeologist teaching at the University of Kent, has set up a degree course in heritage management based at Eleusis, an industrial town near Athens that is home to an important classical site. About 12 students are being selected from more than 60 applicants from Europe and the Middle East.

The 18-month course is designed as a cultural MBA with a practical side, he says. “Heritage isn’t just money and tourism; it’s about managing human resources, creating educational processes, narrative and content, and marketing the product.”

The American College of Thessaloniki, a northern Greek city, is also taking a practical approach by intensifying the entrepreneurship segment of its MBA programme. The small programme has an intake of about 25, mainly from the region, including the southern Balkans.

Professor Nikolaos Kourkoumelis, programme director, says the priority is to develop skills that are immediately applicable in the marketplace.

“In this situation, with few jobs available for MBA graduates in northern Greece and the neighbouring countries just emerging from recession, the challenge for our students is to be able to set up and run their own small businesses,” he says.

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