GREECE: New people - old policies

Forty-two year-old Aris Spiliotopoulos was appointed Education Secretary in a recent government reshuffle by Premier Kostas Karamanlis to boost the diminishing fortunes of his government. His party is now trailing 3-5 percentage points in the opinion polls behind the Opposition for the first time since 2003.

Spiliotopoulos is replacing Evripidis Stylianidis who, although regarded as successful, was removed to the less high-profile Ministry of Transport for what was ostensibly seen as lack of sensitivity after he attended a football match and subsequently went to a nightclub during the student demonstrations following the death of 15 year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos on 6 December.

A graduate of political sciences and communications, with a double masters in the mass media, Spiliotopoulos is a former party spokesman and a personal friend of Karamanlis. He had been handling the sensitive tourism portfolio since September 2007.

The appointment of a young, high-profile but inexperienced politician to the turbulent Education Ministry was seen by many people as putting a communications expert in charge who could defuse the situation created by last month's riots where students expressed their deep discontent at the state of education in Greece.

Conscious of the difficulties facing him in his new appointment and the scepticism which he would encounter, Spiliotopoulos hastened to call for a dialogue with representatives of the academic community without any preconceived ideas or decisions.

The Prime Minister also announced a debate in parliament and it will be interesting to see whether Spiliotopoulos will take the opportunity to indicate any change in the policies hitherto followed by successive ministers.

First priority for the academic community is the financing of higher education. It is now widely admitted that with all the best will in the world no significant changes can be brought about in education without an increase in the level of funding.

The government's pre-election programme stated unequivocally: "It is our intention to increase gradually the level of funding from 3.5% (the previous government's level) to 5% of the GNP in line with most other European countries."

Sad to say, this target has never been achieved. Moreover, the government has initiated significant reductions in successive budgets with the result that the current level of funding is just below 3%.

In this light, the debate the Prime Minister announced will attract a special interest and, to a large extent, will answer critics who claim the government's reshuffle was a communications exercise without any substance since the change of persons in key ministries does not signal a change in government policies.

Two other subjects are likely to dominate the debate and any subsequent dialogue: entrance examinations to university and the creation of a foundation year. There is as well the belief that universities offer "academic sanctuary" which came under severe pressure during last month's riots.

Most academics feel that the time is now ripe not only for reform of the examinations system but also for the establishment of a foundation or preparatory year for university. Reservations have been raised, however, whether such a year should be an additional postsecondary education year or a preliminary university one, along with details such as who will teach it and where.

The academic sanctuary is another thorny question and is likely to raise a great deal of passion. Academics are divided, with some claiming it is anachronistic and others indispensable. Critics and supporters, however, insist the law should be applied.

The retention of the sanctuary and the application of the law are not contradictory concepts. The sanctuary exists to ensure the free dissemination of ideas. Those who take refuge in the university precincts are more often than not neither academics nor students and certainly do not subscribe to the principle.

The law is clear on this point. The District Attorney and the police have a right to enter a university campus if they believe criminal activities are being committed. In reality, however, police are reluctant to enter universities because they fear the consequences which they cannot always control.

Unlike the police, those who take refuge at the university know the area well and have already marked their escape routes should the police decide to enter. Moreover, they can cause damage to buildings and equipment which often is out of proportion with the attempt to dislodge them and that is one reason why rectors often refuse to cooperate with police requests to enter.

Instead, rectors favour the assumption of the responsibility for the safeguard of the sanctuary by members of the academic community and students - a move that so far has been extremely successful.

Prior to holding discussions with representatives of the academic community, the new Education Secretary has started a series of meetings with former education secretaries to formulate his ideas. He has already seen Marietta Giannakou who has recovered her health and is looking to assume political responsibility once again, and Evripidis Stylianidis, his immediate predecessor.

Spiliotopoulos has assured the more cynical partners in his proposed dialogue that everything is under consideration and that the discussions are a sort of tabula rasa, a comment which prompted the shadow Education Minister to accuse him of lacking a clear plan and suggest he should ask instead Quo vadis Greek education?

The sparring of politicians in Latin and the ideas of former education secretaries may be useful. But unless more money is found for education - and soon - the cynics who claim that the Prime Minister's reshuffle was nothing more than a communications trick will rightly feel justified.