Academic becomes education minister in pre-election reshuffle

Greece has a new education minister as Prime Minister Lucas Papademos prepares for an expected general election by reshuffling his cabinet.

George Babiniotis (pictured), a distinguished academic, renowned linguist and best-selling lexicographer, replaces Anna Diamantopoulou and faces the task of restoring a greater spirit of trust and cooperation between academics and the ministry.

Babiniotis has been actively involved in all major education reforms in the last 50 years. He has held a variety of academic posts including chairman of the Institute of Education and rector of Athens University. Although he was from a different ideological background from Diamantopoulou, the two established a close working relationship.

Unlike most academics who were polarised by Diamantopoulou’s framework legislation 4009/11, Babiniotis took a more balanced point of view, pointing out both its positive aspects and its serious weaknesses.

He is opposed to the abolition of academic departments and their replacement by schools and study programmes. Although he was initially to participate in the composition of new university management councils that would prepare for the election of rectors and other institutional officers, he resigned as a result of the violent protests that subsequently took place.

In his resignation letter Babiniotis wrote: “Although I have a different viewpoint for the new legislation and although I believe that closed universities and a refusal of radical changes is a stalemate, I will not allow myself to participate in such a task not elected by my colleagues but appointed by the ministry.”

Now, however, he has been appointed to the top job directly by the government and the responsibility is entirely his. From time to time he has expressed the view that what the country needs is a permanent minister of education, hinting perhaps that he was the best candidate for the job – and perhaps few people could dispute that.

Among Babiniotis' priorities is the smooth operation of the forthcoming entrance examinations to universities and ensuring books reach schools in time at the beginning of the new teaching year in September, a task which his predecessor patently failed to do last year, as a result of which students had to use photocopied material.

He has already started a series of meetings and discussions with the academic community, trade union representatives and teachers from all levels of education in an attempt to identify problems and, where possible, provide solutions within the very restricted financial situation.

Babiniotis is greatly respected and popular among his colleagues and they will more than likely give him sufficient time to correct the 'weaknesses' in the legislation he identified and pointed out.

He has already signalled that he is willing to cut corners to make the legislation more palatable, but it is not yet clear how far he will be willing to make concessions in legislation that has been passed by a wide margin in parliament.

Dates floated for an election include 29 April and 6 May.