GREECE: Lecturers accused of misappropriation

More than 30 lecturers at the University of Crete, one of the country’s most prestigious higher education institutions and research centres, have been accused of unlawfully using €4.8 million (US$7 million) in university funds. They must either pay the money back or face prosecution and have their personal property confiscated.

This followed an audit by a Treasury inspector who claimed the funds were used “for purposes other than those they were earmarked for”. The lecturers deny the money was used unlawfully and counter-claim the inspector carried out his audit in such an arbitrary manner it constituted nothing less than dereliction of duty.

In an act of solidarity, the university’s senate committee has raised questions about the activities of the institution while the university chancellor held urgent talks with Under-Secretary of State for Education Spyros Taliadouros to find a solution to the crisis.

Simultaneously, the lecturers’ union has advised its members to refrain from any kind of management activity. And that means the institutions, sooner or later, will be brought to a complete standstill.

The financial management of state universities is a complex and bureaucratic procedure, not only time consuming and extremely difficult but also leaving a lot to be desired in terms of transparency and effectiveness. University funds are of two types: an annual grant from the state which is audited; and a special account with money the institution attracts from other sources such as investments, private and public donations, EU programmes and so on.

Responsibility for the special accounts rests entirely with the university research committee. It is made up of lecturers, elected for a three-year period by general assemblies of the faculties or departments, and meets under the chairmanship of the vice-chancellor.

Although the research committee has exclusive responsibility both for the legality and the expenditure from these special accounts, the senate committee decides what projects will be financed. The research committee assumes voluntarily legal responsibility to carry out decisions of the of the senate committee.

The legality of the decisions is verified both by internal services and from external auditors, as well as the relevant branches of both the Ministry of Education and the Treasury. It was during one of these external audits that problems arose.

Three projects attracted close scrutiny: a €1.5 million student centre and a €680,000 amphitheatre in Rethymnon, the university’s administrative seat; and a €2.6million allocation on allowances, overtime payments and medical cover for the university’s staff.

The treasury inspector queried these expenditures and wants the members of the research committee to pay back the money. The lecturers deny it was spent unlawfully and point out that all three projects were proposed and budgeted by the senate committee as well as audited by the university’s internal auditors. They have threatened to withdraw their services from any further management duties – an act which may have far-reaching implications for the administration of higher education institutions.

The entire academic community is shocked and dismayed by these developments at the Crete university. Individuals and organisations have expressed solidarity with the lecturers, claiming the autonomy and independence of the state university is being seriously undermined.

In an angrily worded statement, the academic union slammed the treasury inspector’s tactics: “Our members are being vilified for no reason other than following democratically taken decisions in legally constituted collective bodies and in order to ensure the smooth running of the chronically under-funded state university,”, the union said. “They did this voluntarily, out of a sense of duty and without the necessary financial experience.”

Seven prominent academics in an open letter also appealed to senior civil servants to refrain from persecuting members of the academic community. They expressed their determination to defend the reputation of the institution and the rules of its collective bodies.

In a related case the treasury inspector is investigating allegations that large sums of money were paid to students who took part in several different programmes at the University of Crete. Some students are said to have signed receipts for sums up to €2,000 but actually received substantially less. The inspector wants to find out whether there is any truth in the allegations and has approached a number of students who appear willing to give evidence.

Theatre of the absurd or a clear case of defamation? It would be difficult to say. To add spice to the story it has been revealed that the treasury inspector himself is not without blemish. He has been the subject of an internal enquiry on a charge of receiving bribes and he has been convicted by a magistrates court. He has appealed against the conviction and he is now awaiting trial in the Appeals Court.