Finding Home in Foreign Lands

The New Reality Greek Students Face, According to One Studying in Montreal

“Shove that bylaw up you know where… Education is a public good.” Journalism and communication students protest plans to impose fees for tuition and books in Thessaloniki, Greece. Photo Evgenia Choros

A graduate student reconciles the realities of living and studying in Greece with her experience at Concordia.

“So what is it actually like studying and living in Montreal?” a fellow graduate student in Greece asks me. “I thought of going abroad for work and post-graduate studies, and I’m gathering opinions and experiences so I can make a decision.”

This individual is among the many youths in Greece that have reached their limit. She completed a four-year program in university, sought out internships, worked underpaid jobs and reluctantly decided to “flee” abroad, so that her efforts and qualifications wouldn’t go to waste.

I remember asking a few of my friends that had left Greece and gone to other European countries to describe their experience as students and workers. “Is it that different?” I asked. But after having spent almost a year in Canada as a student at Concordia University, comparing my past and present educational experiences made me realize that it really is.

In Greece, there are two paths a student can take after high school: public university (after passing specific entry exams) or a private institution where one pays tuition. Most of the students go public because it’s free. This means four years of studies without paying for anything—not even books.

What struck me when I began my studies at Concordia was the concern my fellow classmates had about student loans and debts. They were in their late twenties and were still struggling to pay off their student loans, trying to sell old textbooks to make a few extra bucks.

Since university is 100 per cent federally funded in Greece, with promises of free and equal access to education, it almost sounds insane that students abroad have to deal with such problems. Then again, students in Greece have other financial issues that Canadians don’t necessarily worry about.

Politics and the economy are the cause of most problems in Greece. The Greek political system, for example, has been built on something called the “system of favour.” This is when a politician promises a citizen something (e.g. a job) in exchange for a vote.

For decades, people have been voting based on their personal needs, not necessarily exercising their vote for the benefit of the people. As a result, the same two major political parties—Nea Democratia (right-wing party) and PASOK (socialist party)—have been governing and “recycling” their family members into parliament for over 50 years.

There were empty promises, numerous scandals of money embezzlement, funds siphoned to offshore companies and accounts in Switzerland, exorbitant expense account claims by politicians, and deals made under the table. But voters averted their eyes as long as they were benefiting personally. However, that bubble had to burst, which led to the situation that Greece is in today: massive debt and a lot of poverty.

For decades, people have been voting based on their personal needs, not necessarily exercising their vote for the benefit of the people.

Since universities are funded by the government and private donations, there is not much scrutiny regarding the amount of funds that go into education. University facilities and equipment are severely underfunded, which hinders learning in the classroom.

In Greece, I studied journalism in a building that was run-down, often without heat during the winter, with broken elevators (even though there was a student with disabilities) and dilapidated furnishings. Additionally, the equipment that was provided to complete assignments was not only inadequate, but completely out of date. Once, I had to shoot a television project with a VHS camera—in 2012.

Another problem that students encounter in Greece is that there are no teacher evaluations. This means that a professor may be bad at their job, and no amount of complaints will result in any substantial change. Students have battled for years for the right to evaluate their teachers, but so far there has been no success in implementing such a system.

And since politics plays a major role in the daily life of Grecians, they are also a topic of conversation in universities. Youth organizations of the major political parties crowd the buildings trying to recruit new members. With desks and posters in every corner, these organizations seek out students, luring them with free drinks, class notes, cool trips and study tips, all in exchange for a vote for the party they represent. This separation of students into opposing political parties has been a chronic problem in universities, turning students against each other and benefiting no one.

Additionally, given the current unemployment situation in Greece, a very small percentage of students work while pursuing their degree. Those that do work are grossly underpaid, as no fixed minimum wage exists. Employment opportunities post-graduation are minimal to nonexistent as well. Employers will not hire students if they’re overqualified, as they will have to pay them more than a lesser skilled employee.

This lack of appreciation from their country is what causes students of Greece to seek refuge in any place that will reward them accordingly. And the saddest part is, they do not plan on returning back home anytime soon.