Why are Greece’s Panhellenic university exams flawed? Simply because they aren’t about the joys of learning. Indeed, I challenge you to find a country with a more nerve-wracking and pointless university entrance system than this!
Thirteen years on the Greek education treadmill come to an end for Greek students who sat for the Panhellenic exams in four subjects from a total of seventeen or so compulsory units of study offered in senior high school. Scenes of frenzy accompany the announcement of results on school boards as students rush to get a first glimpse into their future once marks are posted at the start of summer, but it is only towards the end of August that they know for certain if they managed to get into their desired university course of choice.
The stakes are high. Pressure to succeed in the Panhellenic exams soars to nerve-wracking levels as the entire academic life of students is determined solely by their performance in these grueling exams. Competition is so tough that most students are forced to start extra tuition upon entering their senior freshman year and begin a rigorous course of study throughout the school vacation period. Extra tuition is necessary because school lessons aren’t enough to cut it.
It is a long drawn out ordeal, but the waiting game comes to an end on Wednesday as university bases are announced letting candidates find out if they managed to get into their schools of choice – ideally somewhere near their city of residence.
Here are 10 facts about Greece’s arduous Panhellenic exam system that is fraught with difficulties and contradictions:
1. Parents, teachers and students know that the Panhellenic System is flawed and sheer torture for students but it is regurgitated nonetheless as streamlining courses would result in lost tuition fees for teachers and more unemployment. There are 37,000 tutors registered with private tutoring companies. In some cases, students are taught at institutes by the same teacher they have at school creating “perverse incentives”.
2. Greece’s seemingly free education system is based on the principle of equality according to Article 16 of the Constitution. However, the overstuffed curriculum and low quality of some public schools in Greece has led to a parallel education system being set up. A student who does not attend frontistirio (private tuition) is a “dead man” for the exams. Unfortunately, this extra tuition averages 500 euros per month.
3. The economic crisis has resulted in rising unemployment and dropping salaries that has caused poorer families to struggle to pay for extra tuition. For this reason, the World Economic Forum ranked Greece last of 30 advanced economies when it came to the close relationship between students family income and their performance.
4. Students are separated into two thematic strands and sit for exams in specific subjects but are still required to attend lessons for subjects they won’t be sitting for. This means that half the class is always disinterested and disengaged in the lessons that don’t pertain to them which further increases the need for tuition.
5. The stakes are so high that all that matters in the final two years are scoring marks good enough to get first choice for schools. It is not unusual for classes at school to be empty after Easter so that students can prepare for the strand of subjects they are interested in and they usually take the maximum number of absences they are allowed.
6. The four Panhellenic subjects for university entrance are tested on a written basis on a national scale. They all play an equal role in the establishment of the general average. However, as regards to the leaving certificate (apolytirio), all subjects are tested on a school level. This means that students still have to sit for school exams in the same subjects they were tested for in the Panhellenic exam as well as other areas of studies that aren’t calculated as part of their university entrance requirements. Hence, it is possible for a student to do well in the Panhellenic exams but still repeat the class.
7. The success of each candidate is determined from the combination of the marks on the test and whether these are good enough to ensure that they are admitted to a school high on their declaration of preferences. Whether they manage to do this depends on the number of places available in each department and determined by supply and demand during any particular year.
9. With so much money invested in their students education, Greek parents tend to be overbearing. Having paid a small fortune, they tend to view their child’s success as their own, detracting from their offspring’s sense of personal achievement. Failure is not just the child’s personal failure but comes at a financial cost adding more financial strain to the family increasing the young person’s anxiety levels.
10. Students are groomed by parents and teachers from the start of high school for this one exam. Each year, schools close early so that final-year students can sit for these exams without distractions and from early on students are trained to learn how to study in a way that would help them succeed in this one exam. Rather than prepare them for success, students are merely misguided into thinking that Panhellenic Exams are the point of education and – of course – this could not be further from the truth.