Universities drag heels over crisis-driven reforms

Greece’s universities, deeply embroiled in the general crisis that has plagued the country for at least two years, are only reluctantly implementing key reforms to the way they are run, in the face of dramatic opposition from academics and students.

While the education ministry and university rectors have been at loggerheads for some time, there are now divisions between academics who support the ‘reforms’ contained in Law 4009/2011 and those who oppose it, while students are also opposed.

When Law 4009/2011 was voted through parliament in August 2011, rectors vowed to render it inactive – and now they are keeping their promise.

The ministry claims that the majority of its provisions have already been implemented, but the most important one has not.

The election of management councils, which in turn will elect new rectors and other university officers such as deans, is not only still outstanding but it is also causing considerable unrest and conflict within the academic community.

According to the ministry’s timetable, the election of councils was to be completed by the middle of February but successive postponements have delayed the process.

Most rectors failed to make provisions for the elections until some time after the ministry threatened to halt funding for their institutions. Academics have also been reluctant to put their names forward for election to the committees.

Now that the crisis has deepened and the severe austerity measures imposed have begun to bite, there is evidence of a change of mind as people realise it is better to comply.

However, where ballots were organised, left-wing parties, radical students and large numbers of academics opposed to the legislation sprang into action. They blocked elections by invading university premises, breaking ballot boxes and preventing other academics from voting.

Education Secretary Anna Diamantopoulou accused the Greek Communist Party and the left-wing Alliance of instigating the attacks, while her Undersecretary of State Kostas Arvanitopoulos said it was unacceptable for minorities to prevent the operation of the law and “use either verbal or physical violence in order to prevent people from exercising their democratic right”.

Elections at the Economics University of Athens and the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki were abandoned in late January after an invasion by students and academics.

One election in Serres took place without incident, but in Lamia the process was carried out under the protection of the police and the local district attorney. Six students were arrested but later released.

Now the ministry is examining alternative ways of balloting academics: either through an electronic ballot or through a postal vote.

So far elections have only been carried out in six technological institutes: Messolonghi, Ipiros, Kavalla, Kalamata, Lamia and Serres. Ballots have been postponed in six universities: Crete, Thessaly, Ioannina, Peloponissos and at the Aristotle and economics universities.

Five institutions have yet to announce when they will hold elections: the University of Athens, the Technological University, the Ionian, and the universities of Macedonia and Piraeus. Another eight are expected to announce their elections at various dates over the next two months.

On 22 February, Arvanitopoulos received a 30-page report on Law 4009/2011 compiled by a special committee made up of academics across disciplines and set up by the senate of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

It identified 47 items that caused operating problems and needed improvement.

Professor Nikos Paraskevopoulos, chair of the committee, said the more serious problems included: the abolition of departments and the subsequent destruction of the unified academic entity; excessive powers assigned to deans who may find themselves responsible for academic subjects with which they may not be familiar; the method of electing members of the academic community and their future development; the replacement of the degree with a title of studies; the reduction of the period of studies; and lack of guarantees that student care would continue to be financed by the state.

But within hours the government announced that student care would be cut by a further 10%, the education ministry’s budget by a further EUR80 million (US$107 million) and staff salaries by EUR450 a month (more than 30% – in addition to the 30% reduction at the beginning of 2011).

The education ministry is also going ahead with the merger of research centres, which will be reduced from 56 to 31, and with a significant reduction in the research institutes of the Academy of Athens.