GREECE: Reforms to change the nature of universities

Education has been a high-level political issue in Greece since the 1960s. Struggles for free public education were fought with relative success until the 1967 military coup, and were taken over by the student movement against the military dictatorship in the early 1970s. As a result, the constitution promoted when democracy was restored in 1974 guaranteed free education and the governance of higher education institutions by the academic community itself.

The struggle for democracy inside academia resulted in the Higher Education Bill of 1982, which brought about democratisation, modernisation, academic freedom and self-government through bodies elected from and by the university community.

It also brought impressive qualitative and quantitative development in higher education and academic research. Several Greek universities rank among the 200 or 300 best in the world while publications by Greek academics in peer-reviewed journals almost quadrupled between 1993 and 2008, ranking Greece 17th among OECD countries in 2007.

This process, however, took place under difficult conditions. The establishment of democracy did not end suffocating state control, which came about as a result of insufficient funding and attempts to influence university decision-making bodies.

Higher education became a tool of party politics: to promote regional development and ensure votes for the governing party, new universities sprang up all over the countryside and were subsequently 'forgotten'.

Moreover, clientelism, favouritism and nepotism have been sporadically observed in Greek academia. Finally, the decline of the idea of the public university affected Greek academia and, to some extent, academic research was privatised through processes that lacked transparency.

All these reasons rendered higher education reform necessary in the minds of most academics and they wanted to see reforms which would enhance its public character: more democracy, sufficient funding, and better conditions for academic teaching and research. In fact, a number of reforms have taken place since 1982, but none has solved the problems mentioned above.

In the meantime, the Bologna Process made official the move away from the public university in the European Union. Reforms in Greece along the Bologna track were bound to follow. Yet some of the provisions (namely the imposition of tuition fees and external forms of university administration) were incompatible with the constitution as well as with the views and aspirations of the Greek academic community and society.

In 2006, the New Democracy government initiated a constitutional amendment. However, growing unrest in universities and in Greek society ensured this amendment did not come into effect.

In 2009, the PASOK Party came to power, the economic crisis began and the Greek austerity plan was launched. University budgets were cut by 30% in 2010 and by another 20% in 2011, although according to the agreement between Greece, the EU and the IMF, cuts in the Ministry of Education amounted to only 7%.

Then the recruitment ratio in the public sector was extended to academics (one recruitment for 10 retirements). The 'shock and awe' strategy adopted for the neo-liberal restructuring of the Greek economy and society provided an unexpected opportunity for those who wanted to introduce educational neo-liberalism.

To legitimise its strategy, the government began a campaign to denigrate Greek universities and academics alike. Then it presented a reform bill, which was opposed by the vast majority of university senates, schools and departments, by the Council of University Rectors and by local university teaching unions.

The government submitted the reform bill to parliament on 21 July 2011 and it will be discussed and voted on this month in the face of opposition from the academic community and all political parties, with the exception of the ultra-right political party LAOS.

This bill seeks to enforce sweeping changes in Greek academia and dissolve all existing structures, administrative and academic alike, so that higher education in Greece reverts from a democratic to an authoritarian oligarchic model.

The proposed changes affect not only the administration of universities, which it views more like management, but also knowledge production and reproduction, research and the way different academic disciplines are governed.

With further budget cuts expected, the implementation of this reform creates a context for subordinating knowledge to concerns about finance, increasing insecurity among academic staff, restricting academic freedom and undermining critical thought.

Moreover, it portends a gloomy future for universities in the Greek periphery, for social science, humanities and other 'non-commercial' scientific fields.

To highlight some of the key changes introduced by the new bill:

a) The Board of Administration (council) will not merely audit decisions of the senate but will decide, without any controls, on every aspect of academic life, including research objectives and programmes of study. This will increase the negative aspects of Greek higher education, resulting in the centralisation of higher education administration and more nepotism, and will place universities under the direct control of the government.

b) Universities will be organised solely in schools. Academic departments will be practically abolished, their disciplinary status threatened and their role reduced to taking decisions on teaching practicalities.

c) Free education is guaranteed only for three years, paving the way for establishing undergraduate tuition fees for further years of study. This will lead to further burdens for Greek families at a time of crisis or to graduates incurring huge bank debts in a country where unemployment has officially reached 15%, leading, ultimately, to an increase in educational inequalities.

d) Budget cuts and quality assessment will be introduced with the objective of involving the private sector in the funding of higher education and research. The threat that the latter will lead to research becoming subordinated to financial aims is clear. Moreover, the private sector has proved unwilling to finance academic activity, and it is likely that this will increasingly be the case in the context of the present crisis. What sort of higher education and research will this assure in view of further cuts in years to come?

e) The existing national pay scales of teaching staff will be replaced by individualised, 'productivity'-related pay scales, while insecure employment is to become the norm for lower rank employees.

The planned reform launches a restructuring of higher education accommodating the new economic status of the country. Wrapped up in the vocabulary of novelty, excellence and progress is the demand for cheap, 'subjugated' and recyclable scientific personnel as well as disciplined academic staff.

* Giorgos Aggelopoulos is at the University of Macedonia in Thesaloniki, and Rania Astrinaki is at Panteion University in Athens.

Some 2,350 years ago the idea of the university was born in the Olive Grove of Hecademos, where Socrates engaged with his young male aristocratic students in free and open enquiry and the discssion of the life of the mind.

It is a Greek tragedy that the mother of western civilisation has turned its back on academia. England has led the way in this act of vandalism and others will follow.

This stupidity will not last forever. In the dark ages that are about to begin, it is important for thinking people to retain their composure and quietly resist the bad. The good will return, it always does. The vandals will be forgotten by history and their stupidity will be revealed in the end.

Giles Pickford, Wollongong, Australia

What you describes in your article is so sad, but let me say you that our Venezuelan government, which describes itself as revolutionary and anti-neo-liberal, is doing the same with our higher education.

It tries to eliminate democracy in the institutions. Its strategy also seeks to denigrate the autonomous, traditional, and oldest universities in the country, to subordinate knowledge production to highly ideologically oriented (socialist) goals. It is cutting universities budgets and increasing state control.

In short, it seems that the extremes and apparently opposites meet in their final objectives.

Maria Cristina Parra-Sandoval