GREECE: Diverging views, patchy execution of Bologna

A curious bras de fer is going on between the government and academic community over the provisions of the Βologna process. Greece has been a signatory since 1999 and both the state and academics are willing to see the creation of a European Higher Education Area – but they appear to be following different agendas.

Academics claim that the government is promoting legislation without consultation, while the government accuses academics of reacting adversely to higher education reforms. And trade unions claim the government is trying to abolish free public education, turn academics into merchants of knowledge and students into passive consumers and clients.

The Federation of University Teachers’ Associations is critical of Bologna, arguing that education is an area exclusively of national policy.

But most university leaders look favourably on the process and individual institutions are making steady progress towards most of Bologna’s provisions. The European Transfer Credit System (ETCS), student mobility, quality assurance and other provisions have already been responded to by most institutions to a greater or lesser degree.

Professor Dimitris Despotis, Vice-chancellor of the University of Piraeus, felt that the majority of Bologna provisions were positive though implementation was slow and the pace varied between institutions. “But some of the government’s legal provisions are negative. Parity between the three- and five-year study cycles is not a good thing,” he said

Athens Technological University’s Associate Professor Nikos Belavilas agreed, saying that institutions were implementing most Bologna provisions but that the ETCS system needed further study and a more realistic rationale for its implementation.

There is divergence of opinion as to the best way forward. Changes are perhaps necessary and probably inevitable. Bologna is a voluntary agreement and there is no obligation on countries to participate or to implement its provisions. But less academically developed countries may be afraid to be bypassed by a system calculated to promote excellence.

In Greece, while academics generally support Bologna’s implementation they, inevitably, disagree with some of the legislation required for the changes.

A chasm between the Greek government and academics opened up last summer when the government tried to reform article 16 of the Greek Constitution, which guarantees free state education to all Greek citizens and prohibits the operation of private universities. The issue mobilised the entire academic community and there were strikes, student protests, riots, policy brutality and social unrest, forcing the government to back down.

The government was returned to power at the last election but with a much narrower margin and Education Secretary Marietta Giannakou, architect of the government’s reforms, failed to be re-elected as a member of parliament. Her successor, Evripidis Stylianidis, started his term carefully, appearing more diplomatic and amenable and cultivating the impression that he would steer clear of his predecessor’s tough policies.

The honeymoon seems to be over. At the regular informal Chancellors Conference recently, Stylianidis threatened to withdraw state funding from institutions if they failed to apply the law. His ultimatum provoked a sharp reaction from the Hellenic Federation of University Teachers’ Associations, which said “the Ministry’s decisions have no power to alter the Constitution”.

Earlier, the Federation had lodged an application to the State Council, the highest legal authority in the country, to declare the Education Secretary’s decision to alter the method of electing teaching staff unconstitutional: the case is due to be heard on 13 March. Federation vice-president John Maistros, said article 16 of the constitution had not been reformed and so “no legal restrictions can be imposed on an independent, self-governing university with academic freedom and democratic achievements one of which is academic asylum.”

Chancellors were surprised by the Education Secretary’s move to present four papers at their conference on: research and technology (already voted by parliament into law); postgraduate studies; institutions’ internal regulations; and the four-year financial programme institutions are obliged to complete in order to receive state finance. The parity of the three-year study cycle with that of the five year cycle is another bone of contention.

“The internal regulations introduce a series of autocratic police and disciplinary procedures which have nothing to do with a free, autonomous, independent and democratic university,” Maistros said. “The four-year master plan cannot be completed without knowing the level of future funding, and while the government originally promoted the assessment as a means of improving the quality of education it now threatens to stop funding if it is not made compulsory.

“It is quite clear that the government intents to blackmail institutions and hold them hostage to whatever government is in power. Through laws, presidential decrees and ministerial decision the government is attempting to sidestep the provisions of the Constitution and its own responsibilities,” Maistros concluded.

It is now incumbent on academics and politicians to find acceptable solutions that not only avoid conflict but also promote a spirit of co-operation for the benefit of knowledge and development.