New minister signals readiness to tone down higher education reforms

Greece’s Education Minister Konstantinos Arvanitopoulos has indicated that the new coalition government is willing to negotiate a compromise on controversial higher education reforms inherited from the two previous administrations.

Two active academics are now at the head of the education ministry: Arvanitopoulos, a distinguished scholar and best-selling lexicographer, is the secretary of education, and Theodore Papatheodorou, former rector of the University of Peloponissos, is the new under secretary.

Addressing a conference of the presidents of technological institutes last week, Arvanitopoulos announced the start of a nationwide discussion to find solutions to problems pointed out by the presidents. He assured them that the financing of student care, a matter of great concern to the institute leaders, will be solved from within the institutions’ budgets.

An uneasy truce appears to be hanging over education under the tripartite government established following successive general elections on 6 March and 17 June.

The focus of attention has been on Greece’s pressing economic problems while the academic community, effectively sidelined during the summer recess, is carefully monitoring the situation and laying out its future plans.

Arvanitopoulos was junior education minister in the short-lived Papadimos government, which voted with a hugely increased majority for the framework 4009/11 legislation – which provoked opposition from almost the entire academic community including Papathedorou, who is now called upon to implement that legislation.

In particular, academics opposed the introduction of management councils, which will elect new rectors and other university officers such as deans.

Universities and technological institutions have also faced a large reduction in their reserves after the latter were placed in government bonds, whose value was written down by 53.4% as part of the country’s debt reduction programme.

The ministerial appointments send a strong signal to the academic community that the coalition government is willing to negotiate and even change some of the more unpalatable provisions.

Given Arvanitopoulos’ expressed willingness to make changes, this week’s University Rectors' Synod was due to finalise proposals for amendments they wish to see in the law.

Anna Diamandopoulou, architect of the higher education reforms, failed to be elected to parliament. But her party, PASOK, is a government partner and remains strongly opposed to tweaking the reforms.

The technological institute presidents warned they will remain closed in September unless their severe economic problems are resolved. They said they would go to court to challenge the compulsory 'shaving' of the bonds, and insisted that immediate measures to support education, research and development at their institutions were essential.

They also proposed the reinstatement of the lowest grade of 10 for entry to universities as a means to admit fewer candidates.

Academics are opposed to further cuts to their salaries and are preparing for 'dynamic mobilisation' if the government does so.

In a recent statement the Federation of University Teachers Associations said that many Greek academics are refusing appointments in Greek universities as a result of very low salaries, while “a substantial number of young, dynamic and internationally recognised academic teachers and researchers are planning to emigrate in order to improve their earnings”.

The federation warned finance ministers that further cuts to the salaries of academics were likely to drive an irreversible brain drain that would probably be disastrous for economic recovery in Greece.