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Higher education after the bail-out

The 'agreekment' announced by Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, on 12 July 2015 marked the completion of the deal reached by European leaders and Greece to bail the country out and keep it in the Eurozone.

A month later Greece’s members of parliament voted in, by a majority of more than two thirds, a new Memorandum of Understanding, or MoU, which was then signed by the European Commission on 19 August. Under this MoU, Greece will keep receiving financial assistance from euro area Member States and the International Monetary Fund, or IMF. In exchange, Greece must apply and enforce a wide-ranging austerity programme (officially a “financial adjustment”).

Internal opposition against the austerity measures inside the governing party Syriza was so strong that the Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had to resign and new national elections are to be held on 20 September, the second time elections have been held in 2015.

The prolonged financial crisis affects Greek higher education both directly and indirectly and in multiple ways. In the short term, the capital controls enforced in the summer of 2015 had a direct impact on students studying or planning to study abroad since their parents could not transfer money outside the country to pay rent and tuition fees.

A lot of groundless concern was also raised by incoming students and scientists who planned to attend summer schools and conferences in Greece. In fact, no controls were enforced for cash withdrawals and credit cards issued by foreign banks.

On the other hand, academics and researchers from Greece faced some unexpected challenges working with their colleagues from abroad. If they were abroad, they could not use their credit cards or withdraw money from ATMs. Booking a hotel room, buying an airplane ticket or simply paying the registration fees for a scientific conference became an exercise in inventiveness.

The ability to distribute project money to consortium partners or purchase much needed equipment and services for laboratory work and experiments without credit came to a sudden halt.

These short-term issues were quite a shock in the beginning and the government is still applying corrective actions by loosening some of the controls.

Demoralisation

The long-term effects of the ongoing financial crisis are harder to identify, measure and reverse. The most obvious effect is that the Hellenic Academic Libraries Link (HEAL-Link) had to terminate agreements with all publishers as of 1 July 2015. As a consequence, no higher education or research organisation in Greece has access to much needed papers and journal articles for their research.

Most Greek academics and researchers have been demotivated after years and years of austerity. The continuous salary cuts have driven many experienced professors and researchers to apply for early retirement so they can protect their future income.

For example, the number of tenured and tenure-track researchers who work in state-owned research centres has dropped by more than 25% in the last few years. This is to be expected, as the number of new posts for professors has been frozen for many years now and even those elected as professors have had to wait for a long time to be appointed and start their duties.

Younger professors explore the possibility of taking sabbatical leave and working abroad (often in Europe) for a semester or two. By law, they are entitled to additional compensation for the increased cost of living abroad. The University of Athens recently announced that it will reject any application for 2015 onwards as there is no funding available to cover the costs.

The cuts come as no surprise: up to the end of July Greek universities had received only €2 million (US$2.2 million) of the €112 million (US$126 million) of state funding for higher education for 2015. Continuous budget cuts year on year have resulted in overall cuts of up to 70% in state aid received before the latest financial crisis.

The budget cuts also affect students who study and live away from home. The former minister of culture, education and religious affairs recently acknowledged the need to offer affordable housing and food to students. However, he also admitted that this is currently impossible.

Those finishing their secondary education and other prospective university students choose their options in the general entrance examinations or 'Panellinies' less in accordance with academic criteria – for instance, an interest in a particular subject – and more with financial criteria, such as staying in their home city.

Furthermore, it appears that young people are enrolling on low-demand study programmes in remote cities, aiming to enjoy certain state benefits and private-sector special offers – for example, health insurance as an undergraduate, rebates for IT equipment and cheap mobile plans. However, they never actually attend classes or move to those cities.

Austerity and uncertainty

Despite the severe financial crisis, former ministers of education have tried to reform the higher education and research sector, often with contradictory aims. A new law for research, technological development and innovation was passed by the previous government in December 2014. The new government that came in earlier this year announced the need for a new law on higher education and proposed amendments to the legislation.

This new law will not be passed, though, as the country is heading to elections again and no laws are allowed to be voted on in the meantime. Furthermore, the MoU calls for yet another reform of the research and education system in Greece.

The greatest impact of the ongoing austerity and uncertainty, however, is the increasing phenomenon of brain drain. Greece is preparing and training world-class scientists and researchers who then migrate to other countries and contribute to their economy and development. A recent study indicates that more than 200,000 have left Greece over the past five years. Even worse, a large portion of them do not expect to return.

If and how this trend can be reversed remains to be seen in the coming years. If it is not reversed, the effect on Greek higher education will be even worse than this (hopefully) transient period of austerity.

Artemios G Voyiatzis is a tenured principal researcher with the Industrial Systems Institute of the 'Athena' Research and Innovation Centre in ICT and Knowledge Technologies, located in Patras, Greece.
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