GREECE: Reforms may usher in privatisation

Universities are facing radical reforms with the emphasis on attracting private funds and reducing the state's financial commitment to higher education in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the liberation of the country from the Ottoman Empire in 1821.

From Delphi's European Cultural Centre the Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou (above), attended by the entire leadership of the Education Ministry, announced an ambitious programme of reforms for higher education, which would see a reduction in state funding and greater private sector participation.

Justifying the reforms, Papandreou said: "We are one of the first three countries in the world for the number of young people who go to university, but we are in 118th place as regards the effectiveness of our education."

The proposals, which will be open to public dialogue for the next three months before they are approved by parliament, will affect not only the institutions but also the academic staff and the students.

Proposals include the gradual reduction of the state financial contribution; the attraction of private finance for courses and programmes; outside assessment by foreign academics; the merging or closure of unpopular institutions and courses; the introduction of student fees, and the establishment of non-academic managers in the universities.

Institutions will also be given complete autonomy, a long-term demand of the academic community, making them responsible for their own finances including the right to attract and employ foreign academics of 'high calibre and prestige', which is not allowed under the current status.

In future students will enter a specific university or school, follow a preliminary year and subsequently be able to choose the course they wish to follow. They will no longer participate in the management of the university where they study, a change which student unions and academics have condemned as retrograde and undemocratic.

Papandreou said: "Students will have a wider choice while the institutions will be able to develop their own courses and develop their own degrees."

Non-academic managers will assume responsibility for the running of the institutions, including some duties currently carried out by the Education Ministry such as financial management, the payment of salaries to academic and non-academic staff and attracting sponsors. Rectors will be appointed or selected after international competition and will be firmly restricted to academic matters.

In line with the government's intentions and the behests of the country's creditors (the International Monetary Fund, European Union and the European Bank) non-viable courses and institutions as well as those located close to each other or with similar orientation will either close or merge.

The institution's management committee, with the participation of academics as well as individuals outside the academic community, will be responsible for the overall running of the university and its first priority would be to attract new sources of income.

The Senate Committee will be composed of personalities from within and outside the academic community and will only have supervisory responsibility. Assessment by internal and external assessors will take place at every stage of the institutions' operations. Institutions and courses will be certified by the assessors and funding will be subject to assessment.

Agreements based on special criteria such as performance, efficiency, productivity and returns on investment will affect funding. The number of students, degrees, success in the labour market and research achievement will also be taken into consideration.
Institutions will be run by independent financial committees, while services provided by the institution such as catering and rooms will be opened to the private sector.

Students will be issued with cards for access to these services. A new system of grants and scholarships is proposed as well as a student loans system in cooperation with the banks.

The emphasis on private finance follows a recent 33% cut in the finances of the institutions and signals a first step towards the bypassing of article 16 of the Constitution which ensures the state nature of education; it is considered a first step towards the privatisation of higher education.

The reaction of the academic community to the reforms, which were unveiled late last month, was rather muted. But a number of distinguished academics and university rectors have expressed reservations.

Giannis Mylopoulos, Rector of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, said: "Universities are unable to operate with a 40% reduction in their budget and we appeal to the government to exclude higher education from the programme of recession."

Students have already expressed their opposition to the government's plans.