An English friend of mine who had been working as the head of the UK based Examination board that provides services to a large number of schools both in the south and the north of the island once confessed to me as being perplexed at what she described as the ‘Cypriot obsession’ with higher education.’What gives them this drive?’ she wanted to know. ‘The determination to succeed as if lives depended on it, the competitiveness of not just the students but also their parents, especially the parents, is just astonishing’.
Yes.The parents. Well as a teacher I have certainly had my share of dealings with Cypriot parents. Some might call them ‘pushy’ , some might say that they are ‘tiger parents, some might label them as blindly ambitious but no one can deny that Cypriot parents in general , whatever the socio-economic background they may have , all unite on one purpose. Health and safety aside, this is the one goal that they strive for… to enable their children to get the best education possible whatever the consequences, whatever the circumstances, whatever the cost. Considerable sums of money are paid to the schools and spent on the extra tuition. Sacrifices are made. Lives are put on hold for that one goal. The goal of ‘Studying and becoming somebody’….
I could detect the bewilderment and at the same time admiration in her voice.We had just attended an annual awards ceremony for high achievers and it had been announced that once again the Cypriot students had gained grades in their GSCEs and A’ levels that were amongst the top in the world rankings. They had excelled yet again, majority meeting the requirements of their academic aspirations to a tee. According to statistics, last year an estimated two thirds of the secondary school graduates proceeded to become students at universities or at other higher education institutes. No mean record for an island of such a small population ( 1-1.2 million overall ) and a land that has had its own share of uncertainties and political turmoil for decades.
To provide a satisfactory answer to such a question as to why we the Cypriots are so obsessed with education is not simple. Education itself is not a simple issue. It never was. It never will be. Yet when faced with such a question ( admittedly one that I too have often pondered about extensively myself) and attempting to answer it, one thing is very clear to me. This is not solely an education issue. It is not education per se that holds the key for the answer here. The key is history an. More often than not it is the history that can explain the present to us. One cannot deny the importance of the island’s history and the conditions faced by all Cypriots then and those faced since then. Here we have a Mediterranean island, still troubled, still divided with its occupants living under a cloud of uncertainty even today. Perhaps looking back at its recent history an explanation of this ‘obsession’ can be found.
First we have Cyprus under the British rule. It is a colonial society. New schools are being built in addition to the very limited numbers that were only accessible to the wealthy or for those associated with the religious institutions. It is a double win situation for the new British Administration and symbiotic in its results overall. The British see it as their genuine movement to develop the concept of democracy and ‘upgrade’ the Cypriot society by providing education to greater masses. The British identity is endorsed through schooling . It is subtle, clever and productive. Teachers are brought from Britain to partake in the ‘project’. English language becomes widely spoken. Academic distinction is applauded. Bursaries are given to those that excel to be further educated overseas in specific fields. There is a need for doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers. The Cypriots perceive that the very small percentage of already educated, almost all coming from wealthy backgrounds, have already found favour in the newly set up society. There are goals to be realised, benefits to be had. In my opinion, it is most probable that this is when the seeds of what my English colleague called an ‘obsession for education’ were sown.
As the number of educated rises, the make up of the Cypriot society begins to change and to evolve. Parallel to this, the political climate too is changing. The colonial days are over. Republic is founded. The days when the hierarchical arrangement of individuals into positions of power or importance more or less depended on them being the landowners or being wealthy are long gone. It is now on the basis of the kind of education they have had. Many parents utter the very same sentiments to their offspring. ‘Study, study ,study…being educated means that you have saved yourself’
What exactly is education saving the young Cypriots from ? What did education mean to the average Cypriot back then? It is possible that initially, during the days of the British rule, to be educated meant that they too would have a say, a say in their lives and in their own future. It was a way out of poverty. Being an island the options were limited. Globalization was not yet in the horizon. Migration was the last resort and a step into the unknown.
During the years that followed, education became more and more the major tool in finding ‘high quality and much respected’ jobs ( working for the state was regarded as such. In fact it was regarded as being the most secure. In a way it is still regarded as such despite its many failings) or to have distinguished professions. Teachers were highly respected but becoming a doctor, engineer or a lawyer meant a swift and a sure ascend of the social ladder. Benefits were absolute.
Education also had another major role. During the troubled times it was an insurance against all odds. In those bleak and unsettling times the Cypriots had found something to hold onto . They had discovered that education was one thing they could rely on totally for achieving that social and economical mobility that they so coveted whatever the political climate. Education made them feel safe as they faced an unclear future of their country. In many ways education became their saviour.
Presently, although still shadowed by unsolved political issues, Cyprus is a far cry of what it used to be. The economy has progressed. Living standards are higher than ever before. People from a variety of backgrounds, both from the rural and the urban areas have more or less equal opportunities
There is no gender inequality. It is part of the European Union which means that it is not enclaved in its coastal boundaries. Many Cypriots migrated as a consequence of the political upheaval but most migrated to escape the poverty and the lack of jobs available to the uneducated and unskilled. Now those who choose to do so are more likely to be equipped with their education that provides them the freedom of choice. It enables them to enter their chosen vocation with confidence. The echoes of the past remain. ‘Study and be somebody’….
I think I finally have an answer to my friend’s question. Despite its overtly presence the all consuming approach towards education is probably remnants of our past, remnants of our history that is very much alive today. It is embedded in our souls, in our minds and in our hearts. If it had been biologically possible it would be in our genes taking its place proudly on the genome. We see education as something that once attained no one can take away from us.We may lose our homes, our land, our possessions, all our worldly goods as most of us did before but we would never lose our education. It is like a priceless jewel we cash in to survive and that jewel is still always ours. Wherever we go. It is our insurance.
Education…Our grandparents aspired it for our parents. Our parents aspired it for us. We want the same thing for our children. They will want it for their own children and so on…