'Cave-in' accusations over university reform concessions

Greece's Education Secretary Konstantinos Arvanitopoulos has tabled changes to controversial legislation on the management of universities, under special urgent rules. But the move has failed to repair divisions in higher education.

Many academics opposed the plan in the legislation introduced last year to create management councils, which would elect new rectors and other university officers such as deans.

Arvanitopoulos’ amendments include the extension of existing rectors’ terms of office up to the end of their period of election instead of to the end of August 2012, as stipulated in the legislation.

The rectors’ council and not the envisaged ad-hoc committee of former rectors, deans and retired professors, would be responsible for conducting elections for the management committees of institutions up to 25 October, with the option of a postal vote to avoid disruptions.

Rectors and deans would be elected by the total number of their academic colleagues in secret ballots and their period in office would be restricted to one four-year term without a right of renewal or re-election.

The department remains the basic unit of academic institutions – and not the school, as the legislation proposed. The senate would be responsible for academic matters, while administration and financial matters would be the responsibility of elected management councils.

The initiative to amend the law to ensure its implementation was treated with a great deal of scepticism and has failed to repair divisions.

Critics of the original legislation declared themselves cautiously satisfied but reserved the right to re-examine the effects of the amendments in a year’s time. Supporters of the original legislation accused Arvanitopoulos of caving in to the demands of ‘guilds’ within institutions that safeguard their own interests and oppose change.

Anna Diamandopoulou, Arvanitopoulos’ former boss as education secretary and main author of the legislation, reacted angrily to the amendments.

She failed to secure re-election to parliament in the last two elections, which many believe was due to her implacable stance against rectors who opposed the legislation.

“The government’s proposals are an insult to democracy and a disregard for the parliamentary process,” she said.

“I believe that the future of this reform will operate as a barometer not only for the future of the government but also the country as a whole.”

The pressure group Observatory on Research and Dialogue in Universities also voiced strong criticism earlier this month.

President Achilleas Mitsos, a professor at Aegean University, said: “We are worried not because of the changes in the legislation but the abandonment of a reform before it was implemented.”

His deputy, Vasso Kindi, said that universities, apart from management, needed to "assume their position in society" and, that by "abandoning this reform", they were condemned to "a slow death”.

A number of professors at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, whose Rector Giannis Mylopoulos was a strong opponent of the amendments, said that they had hoped the new legislation would help universities to escape the morass of party politics, interference from student organisations and client relationships.

“However, basic provisions of the legislation continue to remain inoperative as a result of a very strong opposition from organised minorities and university leaderships,” the professors said.

University rectors, in a statement issued after a special conference, said that “the new provisions do not appear to contribute towards a smooth academic operation of universities nor do they offer any solutions to the very urgent statutory, economic and administrative problems of institutions”.

Opponents of the amendments include Nikos Stavrakakis, a professor at the National Technological University of Athens and president of the Federation of University Associations, and former undersecretary of state for education Giannis Panaretos.

Joakim Gryspolakis, rector of Crete Technological University, stated that those who do not want to adhere to a law could refuse to implement it.

The laws were previously introduced last year and voted for by five out of six MPs – a significant majority of the Greek parliament – but were never implemented due to opposition form universities.

At the time, supporters of the original legislation hailed it as a means to break the status quo at universities, fight corruption, eliminate transactions between teachers and students and end political favouritism, which prevented progress in higher education institutions.

Its opponents argued that the legislation was a first step towards the abolition of university independence, their gradual privatisation, and the imposition of student fees, which even today – in the midst of the worst economic crisis the country has ever experienced – remains anathema for the majority of Greek people.

Supporters of the new amendments include Dimitris Kremastinos, a professor of cardiology at the University of Athens and MP for Dodekanissos; and the linguist and lexicographer professor, George Babiniotis, who was briefly education secretary at the beginning of the year. Babiniotis said “the changes were made in an effort to operate the law which has a number of awkward parts that needed to be re-examined”.

He said it was not possible to prevent 24 universities and 16 technological Institutes from operating, nor to keep more than 200,000 students from their studies because of the “obstinacy of some politicians”.