GREECE: Anger over short sharp shock remarks

A series of provocative remarks by Greek Education Secretary Evripidis Stylianidis, indicative of his intentions to proceed with unpopular reforms at a particularly sensitive time, have ended the relatively mild climate currently prevailing in higher education and caused a sharp reaction among the academic community.

Speaking at a reception in honour of Richard Levin, President of Yale University who was in Athens last week for a series of lectures, Stylianidis claimed the Greek state universities needed a "short sharp shock which could be none other than the creation of private universities and the reform of article 16".

His remarks were seen as confirming his intentions to continue with the government's unpopular policies that caused social unrest last year and to recognise the so-called 'private colleges' - a casus belli with the vast majority of the academic community.

Lecturers and students, trade union representatives and members of the management of higher education institutions accused Stylianidis of deliberately aggravating the relatively quiet climate prevailing in the industry at a time considered to be particularly difficult.

In the next few weeks, senate elections are due to take place in many universities and other higher education institutions along with elections for departmental heads and presidents. Likewise, the end-of-term examinations are about to start and the Panhellenic Examinations are due to begin in the middle of June.

Moreover, a sharp thorn in the flesh of the higher education institutions is their obligation to present their four-year rolling financial programme at the end of May.

The Hellenic Federation of University Teachers Associations reacted angrily to the Education Secretary's remarks: "It is not the first time that the Education Secretary disparages the work of the state universities and attacks higher education teachers and students," the federation declared.

Simultaneously, it announced a 48-hour strike this week and a three-day stopwork next week. The federation also declared its intention to escalate its opposition with a series of appeals to the political parties and the President of the Republic who is extremely sensitive to education and environmental subjects.

Economics professor at the Athens Technological University, Lefteris Papagiannakis, said Stylianidis appeared to be "playing with fire". The reform of higher education institutions and the strengthening of Greek university degrees demanded delicate and skilful moves but this had been made more difficult if the Education Secretary himself was undermining the process.

"His remarks insulted the Greek state university and those teachers who disagreed with the government's policies," Papagiannakis said. "Mr. Stylianidis is imagining therapeutic shocks as a result of privatisation and an imaginary influx of foreign investment. I wonder if it is deliberate provocation or political naivety? It seems to me it is an example of a Balkan neo-liberalism in all its glory!"

Elias Chronopoulos, secretary of the Alliance Political Party Students Union, said the government did not appear to have understood anything from the "victorious student mobilisation of the recent past". Chronopoulos revealed that student unions all over the country had already inaugurated a round of general assemblies in order to formulate their future action.

Konstantinos Moutsouris, president of the Athens Technological University, called on all sides to lower the tone and show restraint: "It is important the elections and examinations be carried out in relative calmness for the benefit of the state university."

The Education Secretary, however, appears to be on a different wavelength from the voices calling for restraint and seems determined to proceed with his reforms even without the consent of the academic community.

At a press conference following the reaction from his remarks, he threatened to withhold finances and grants from those institutions which failed to submit the four-year rolling financial programme at the end of May. He rubbed more salt in the wound by stating that financing of postgraduate programmes was still subject to completion of an internal assessment when the majority of the institutions are not ready. Currently only 125 from a total of 460 departments have started the process of internal assessment and that in a half-hearted way.

Asked what he proposed to do if students attempted to disrupt senate and departmental elections (as they had done at the Economic University earlier in the month), Stylianidis said the state had made the laws while management of institutions had the responsibility to apply them.

This was a contradictory statement that on one hand referred directly to the autonomy of the institutions while on the other it justified the pressure put on them by the Education Secretary as regards the four-year financial programmes.