GREECE: Protests erupt over higher education reform

More than 80 schools and departments are reported to be under occupation by students in Athens, Thessaloniki, Patras, Crete, Jannena and Thrace, as the government faces continued opposition to its higher education reforms, despite MPs uniting to vote for them in parliament.

Lecturers, professors, rectors, trade unions, students unions and some MPs have expressed reservations about the plans. The scientific committee of parliament has declared them unconstitutional. And many university rectors have warned that they will be difficult if not impossible to operate.

The senate committees of the occupied institutions have postponed the examination period in an unprecedented act of solidarity with students. It is expected that the occupations will spread and will last throughout September, in an effort to put pressure on the government to withdraw the legislation.

An angry Education Secretary, Anna Diamandopoulou, said that "these things cannot be done without cost" and accused the rectors, university authorities and students of having turned the institutions into private communes.

She said: "The Greek people pay taxes in order that universities remain open and operating. It is not possible for the rectors, the professors or the students to decide when they want to give exams or to squeeze a teaching period of 13 weeks into seven. That's why the legislation was necessary and that is why it was imposed by society."

Opponents say the reforms challenge the constitutional right to free state education at all levels for Greek citizens, established by article 16 of the constitution, and pave the way for the privatisation of higher education.

The new legislation also abolishes the status of universities as sanctuaries, introduced by law 1288/82 after the collapse of the military junta, which ruled from 1967 until 1974. This promoted free speech and the dissemination of ideas and protected students and intellectuals from prosecution.

It is being replaced by a vague 'academic freedom' clause, which is seen as a step backwards because police and security forces will now be able to enter universities without the permission of the senate.

Other key changes include the establishment of a 15-member board of trustees in each higher education institution; a tightening up of allowed completion times for degrees; five-yearly assessments of staff; and tighter controls on funding of individual institutions with incentives for good performance.

The boards of trustees, the institutions' highest authority, will include seven members appointed from institutions, six external appointees drawn from the social, political and cultural spheres and local communities, and there will be one student representative.

In a last-minute concession granted to secure Opposition support, the rector or president of each institution will be elected by an institution's entire teaching staff, from two or three candidates selected by the board of trustees following an international competition.

Studies will follow a three-cycle system: three years for undergraduates; a single year for postgraduate degrees and two years for a PhD. Students will earn credit points (60 for each year) and will be able to transfer them to other departments and institutions. There will be compulsory foreign language programmes and fees for postgraduate studies, foreign students and special programmes.

Students will be allowed to complete their studies in the minimum required period plus four additional semesters (two extra years). Students who can prove they are working more than 20 hours a week - as most of them do - will be allowed double this additional time. If they do not complete their studies within this period, or do not register for two continuous exams, they will be struck off the register and lose their student status.

Students who are currently on the register but have not completed their studies for many years will be given up to the academic year 2013-14 to do so.

Teaching staff will be placed in three levels: assistant, deputy and professors (lecturers are abolished). They will be assessed every five years. A professor from abroad will be included in the assessment committee. Failing the assessment could result in severe sanctions.

Institutions will be invited to attract private finance. Henceforth state finance will be given under certain conditions and indices: the cost per student; the number of registered students; the size and geographic location of the institution, the institution's reserves etc.

Additional finances will be given to institutions that meet certain qualitative targets and academic achievements, such as the ratio of graduates to applicants, research excellence and international recognition.

Private companies will assume the responsibility to connect universities to the market place, and attract and manage additional funds but not the state funds. Student welfare (food, accommodation) will also be their concern.

A vast number of schools, departments and in many cases whole universities will be merged, renamed or completely abolished on the basis of financial criteria and their past performance.

The package of legislation represents a significant departure from the approach established when the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) came to power for the first time with slogans such as "a university in every city a TEI in every village", and "15% of GNP for education".

Now the same party, led by the son of the party's founder, Prime Minister George Papandreou, is turning that policy on its head and attempting to introduce market forces into Greece's popular free state universities.

Education Secretary Diamandopoulou brushed off objections to the reform package. "If anyone has any objections to the law that we have made for the next 20 years, they are free to appeal to the state council," she said.

Already the country's top institutions have declared their opposition to the legislation and said they will not put it into operation.

The Technical University of Athens and the Technical University of Crete have supported the mobilisation of the academic community and have postponed their examination periods for later in the year while they consider appeals to the state council.

The senate committee of the Technical University of Athens said the legislation "undermines the state university", and called on all its members to take action to oppose the law and safeguard the autonomy of institutions.

The senate committee of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, in a statement expressed its opposition to the law and added that it disconnected research from universities. It said the cost of studies was being transferred to the shoulders of Greek families already burdened with excessive taxation, and salary and pension cuts.

Giannis Mylopoulos, Rector of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, said no reform could be implemented if it did not have the consensus of all those responsible for putting it into operation. He said: "The current economic situation is not the proper time for a conflict between the government and the academic community."

The Panhellenic Federation of University Teachers Associations (POSDEP) expressed its complete opposition to the legislation and asked the government to consider postponing its implementation for a period of time, to give all parties the opportunity for a more mature study of the provisions.

In a letter to the president of the Greek parliament, POSDEP said: "If this legislation is approved as it is, it will mortgage the future of the country for a long time and will preclude any substantial reform in higher education and research for a long time to come."

The strong suspicion remains among some opponents that the government has been forced into making the reforms by international organisations that have supported the bailout of the country, including the International Monetary Fund, European Union, European Bank and OECD.

Last month Angel Gurria, Secretary General of the OECD, recommended that Greece take steps to improve the management of the higher education system via the establishment of a Hellenic Higher Education Authority.

He said the country should improve the performance and efficiency of institutions, tackle the high enrolment and low completion rates of students, create more clearly defined university and non-university sectors, and better align universities with a lifelong learning strategy.

Manolis Dretakis, a former vice-chairman of parliament and finance minister and a professor at the Economic University, claimed the government's policies were inspired by foreign prototypes "who do not have any knowledge of the history, the structure, the operation and most of all the human members of the institutions".

Some 900 foreign academics with international reputations such as Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Zizek, Jacques Ranciere and Michael Lowry, after meeting with their Greek colleagues have signed a statement expressing their support and asking for the withdrawal of the legislation and the start of a dialogue with the academic community for legislation which will ensure "self government for the universities; adequate finances for higher education; and respect for European traditions".

One thing seems certain. This is a battle that has yet to run its course. The government is determined to reduce the state's financial involvement in institutions and invite more private investment, while the academic community appears equally determined to safeguard the public nature of the country's higher education.