Issues of representation – Your power is your market

Greece has never had a particularly good reputation for collective activity and representation. All professional fields are represented by their chambers and associations but participation and contribution becomes an issue only in times of difficulty or crisis, which in most cases proves to be too late. Besides, everybody wants to be a president, and usually the elected president is the one who has the time to be one.
Times, facts and prospects are changing drastically. The EU is exercising pressure on the State for a big change in FLT in our country: further incorporation of the CEF standards so that in a few years time we will not be talking about ‘foreign languages’ but about the ‘languages of Europe’, some of which must have been incorporated in the national curriculum as optional communicative and teaching tools. On top of that, the KPG will have to reach the point of compliance with the standards of a national bac level certificate.
If such a big change occurs, the role of language as a teaching subject, but also the role of our schools, ourselves as business owners and teachers, our associations, the publishers, the franchise chains and especially that of the examinations, will have to transform.
The various reactions to the above statement could be that it is all based on rumours; that the relationship between the Ministry of Education and the relevant authorities in the EU has been constantly developing and rather blurry throughout the years; that the State has proven to be to slow and that no comprehensive reform has been seriously considered over the past few years while the trade power of international examinations corpora has “saved” the day so many times.
However, this is exactly what the main weakness of the ELT field in Greece consists of: institutional uncertainty.
The relationship between the private ELT sector and the State has so far been based on a major inferiority complex. The State preserved and encouraged the development of the field as long as everything worked towards its interest. Compliance with the terms of a free market, a widespread tax source, a piloting field for the definition of needs in foreign language education, a productive field for training students towards the internationally recognised certificates, everything in fact that the State could not provide for about 40 years, was generously provided by the private frontisteria FL certificates industry.
At the same time the State, with all the political adventures of the ‘70s and the ‘80s, could not tame and recognise private businesses that literally offered what it was not in a position to offer. Especially when no major organisation can build a curriculum with an orientation to certificates that one day will be competing with its own one. The ultimate truth is that the State would never give fair credit to the private frontisteria sector.
The above oxymoron led the field to compete solely on an institutional basis. For years and years the local associations and the federation fought for several levels of institutional recognition. The recognition of the PALSO examinations and of the frontisteria as a primary instead of an auxiliary productive force, together with the setting of criteria and levels of social security, salaries and tuition fees, created the arena that literally gave the associations the role of a Union instead of that of a Chamber of FLT providers.
The result of the above misunderstanding was an even bigger oxymoron. One of the biggest national responsibilities, the foreign language training of so many generations of students, was born by a clearly private sector and its market, whereas the institutional principles and relevant legislation were defined by an observer. This private sector grew unfettered as everybody was mainly concerned with the institutional issues. School owners neglected their mission and quality standards, as long as the specific target of preparing students for the certificates was met. Publishers relied too much on this clean and specified market and let inflation overrun their publishing plans.
I know there is an end to this vicious circle. Our power is our market! The market trusts the field, as for foreign language acquisition there has been no other field around. The big issue is that the market is changing and so are its needs. Institutional changes will affect its needs even more. What do we really know about our market and how do we cater for our big responsibility towards it?
Here comes the important role of the representatives of the field. Research and overall marketing of the field should be within the main duties of every association representing tens of professionals. So far the main role of the board of each association has been how to ensure the income of the association through the organisation of events and the examinations. There were also attempts to unify and standardise the market through regulating tuition fees, free lessons and fairness of competition, overlooking, however, the market reality. What is the point of restricting the potential competitive advantages of a member, when this member is being suffocated by the promotional tricks of non-members? What are the protection and competitive advantages that the association offers to this member? Is it the assurance of higher quality? The communication to the parents of what it really means to be a PALSO member? The communication to the parents of why the tuition fees are higher and what they cover? Maybe the communication about the damage that private lessons can do to a student under certain circumstances? Is it really strange that school owners’ interest in their associations is getting less and less, while new associations are being formed under the light of common targets such as better examining conditions or quality assurance?
The existing associations should redefine the dialogue they have been holding with the Greek community, but instead of addressing themselves to the State, they can now turn their heads to the market. Greeks have proven that they are willing to pay, as long as they know that what they pay for is worth it. The problem with parents is that they take frontisteria for granted, almost as much as the public schools. We take parents and what they know about us for granted, so, in their turn, they take us for granted as well.
The messages we have drawn from the year-long market research that was published in the last ELT News issue point out that the role of the associations should focus on the following issues:
a) Define from scratch a realistic and down to earth code of practice and quality for their members and most importantly communicate this code to the parents, with all the competitive advantages that this code gives them. A client must be very clear about his/her benefits. All international and local quality assurance schemes are of private initiative and their power solely lies on the communication and marketing behind them. The only nationally driven code is the criteria the State sets for the licence of operation of a frontisterio. Such movements of associations in the UK and Spain were pointed out in my letter to the federation last summer.
b) Set specific targets for the field that will point out the long experience, know-how and expertise obtained over the years and how these can prove to be useful for the creation of a national curriculum in co-operation with the State. However, for this to happen, the field must obtain the necessary communication power within the community, with serious research and use of existing resources, that will lead to informative campaigns in the public sector and further support.
c) Expose their members to realistic legal and financial developments and techniques that will contribute to their viability. There is no point in organising seminars and commercial presentations by business consultants introduced by local chambers, when the funding programmes they present do not include private FL schools. This is rather sadistic, especially when there are legal and financial transformation plans afoot that would legally qualify a school owner for funding from the EU.
d) Create a PR department that would gather information and rally the media to contribute to their communication plans.
e) Create a research department to specify know-how export opportunities. Our market is powerful but a little bit too small.
f) Realistically face the inevitable and make friends. A healthy State system will contribute to better national functions, the elimination of black economy for the community, the resetting of targets and the creation of a clearer landscape of needs in foreign language education. The private sector will become more diverse, research and competition will boost the quality of services and lead to specialisation according to geography and target markets. Then teaching, or better tutoring, will again become a respectable service worth paying for.
g) Create a long-term business and communication plan for each association and the federation, based on the criteria of private institutions, to ensure resources for research, action, mobility and eventually viability.
The above issues can form a guide of reform for the private sector as well. These are institutional changes that take a long time to bring about and even longer to fruit. However, we should look and plan ahead to create the foundations of a strong field that will be flexible enough to meet the challenges and changes of the future. Productivity and competitiveness are only trapped in Greece because of our ‘last minute’ nature. Last minute decisions make us late followers of foreign-driven developments. And I personally dread the idea of Greece turning into the Florida of Europe. A paradise for pensioners.


Copyright© 2005  Yannis Stergis
Republication or use of part or all text without written permission from Yannis Stergis is strictly prohibited.