Countering the abuse of academic freedom

Greece is the birthplace of democracy. This heritage, along with the harsh experience of a dictatorship in the late 1960s and a higher education movement that played an important role in the restoration of democracy, has marked the state of the modern Hellenic Republic.

It was the existence of academic freedom that permitted students to gather inside higher education institutions and form a strong movement that led to the subversion of the Junta.

Since the dictatorship, there has been sensitivity in Greece about academic freedom, which according to Encyclopaedia Britannica can be defined as “the freedom of teachers and students to teach, study and pursue knowledge and research without unreasonable interference or restriction from law, institutional regulations or public pressure”.

Interestingly and unusually, in Greece academic freedom post-dictatorship was enshrined in the 1982 legislation of "academic asylum", which prohibits by law the intervention of authorities, including the police, on the premises of public higher education institutions, even when criminal behaviour is taking place.

Who would have thought that the birthplace of democracy would need to protect academic freedom through legislation.

Academic asylum

For years, Greek higher education has been operating a system in which academic freedom has been interpreted in a broad context and has been used to justify a range of otherwise unethical and even illegal actions. Almost all stakeholders, including Greece's political parties, have taken advantage of the loose interpretation of academic freedom.

One example is the use of academic asylum as an excuse by the government for not requesting the intervention of police when criminal activity is taking place inside public universities, as the law allows, for fear of being considered to be acting undemocratically and so as not to upset student political parties.

Similarly, students have used academic asylum to justify extreme demonstration actions, such as holding hostage a rector by constructing a wall to cover his office door, or such as destroying expensive laboratory equipment.

This academic freedom is not based on an unwritten social contract between the various stakeholders, as in most developed countries, but on rigid legislation.

The rigid legislation has allowed a multi-contextual, loose interpretation of academic freedom by the various stakeholders. According to a recent study, Turkey has managed to improve its academic freedom more than Greece since the 1980s.

The authors of a 2012 study, Ioannis Grigoriadis and Antonis Kamaras, ascribe this to long-existing problems within the Greek higher education system, specifically the problematic interpretation of academic asylum law and the direct involvement of political parties inside universities through student parties.

Abuse of the legislation

There have been several cases of academics and those in senior management positions in public higher education institutions using their power to fulfil personal aspirations and-or interests by exploiting the protection afforded by the academic asylum legislation.

Paradoxically, at the same time Greek governments have intervened directly in the running of universities. One example of this intervention is the direct manipulation of available places in public higher education institutions, which has meant that in election years the number of entrants has been much higher than institutions could afford.

Students have also used the academic freedom legislation to exploit higher education premises for various purposes. Only a few weeks ago it was revealed that one ‘student’ had been occupying a room in a publicly funded hall of residence of a university for the past 20 years. Under the auspices of academic freedom, students in Greek public universities can literally study forever, creating the phenomenon of so-called ‘eternal students’.

Changes to higher education

One of the recent changes in Greek higher education introduced by the troika – the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank – following calls for accountability and rationalisation of the public sector, involved the legislation on academic freedom, although it has been up for debate for many years.

The new law primarily targets the administration of higher education institutions through the establishment of councils to replace the rectorate.

The changes have prompted much discussion.

On one side has been the argument claiming that the abuse of academic asylum and academic freedom are part of an intentional effort to degrade the image of public higher education in Greece and justify the use of neoliberal policies to justify the establishment of private universities.

On the other side are those who argue that higher education stakeholders – academics, student political parties, governments – have used academic freedom to develop and cement privileges that extend from economic to academic benefits.

Over the past three or so years, since the entry into the European Union support mechanism and the direct intervention of the troika in Greek public policy, several actions have been taken that have directly or indirectly affected academic freedom.

Whether these actions constitute a step in the right direction or are appropriate is something that is, to some extent, an issue for personal evaluation.

Nevertheless, I would argue that the problem of academic freedom in Greek higher education extends further than a debate about egalitarian versus meritocratic education, or public versus quasi-public higher education.

There is nowhere else in the developed world where the rectors of public higher education institutions can refuse to implement a legal framework because it does not serve their interests. This is what happened in Greece in respect of Law 4009, which was voted in by an overwhelming majority by the Greek parliament.

This law introduced the concept of councils, which were set to replace the existing management structure in higher education institutions.

For almost two years university rectors refused to implement the new law and allow elections for places on councils. This was despite the fact that the majority of academics, who form the electorate of the councils, were in favour of the new system.

Finally, to overcome this vociferous minority, an electronic voting system was used. Not surprisingly, the majority of academics voted for councils.

Interestingly, the new councils include as members Greek academics who work in top universities in the United States and elsewhere. In some cases non-Greek academics were even elected as chair of council.

This could be interpreted as an articulation of a hidden and repressed desire for reforms that will liberate Greek higher education from a vicious, long-existing and corrupt barter between rectors, academics, political parties and students.

Time will tell whether academic freedom in Greece will recover the meaning and standing that it has in other developed democratic countries of the world.

* Vangelis Tsiligiris is college principal of the MBS College in Crete, Greece.