Academics, public not philosophical about Athina plan

When Greece joined the European Union (EU) and later the monetary union, it looked forward to a long period of security with its neighbours and robust economic growth. But in the past five years the combined policies of the EU and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have thrown the country into a maelstrom of recession. Now higher education is experiencing the cuts demanded by international creditors.

Higher education has sharply contracted over the past five years as a result of drastic reductions in state funding, which in turn resulted in redundancies and salary cuts for staff and academics. Universities have been fighting to remain independent and to maintain the quality of the courses they provide.

Now the Education Ministry’s ‘Athina’ plan, which among other things proposes seemingly indiscriminate institutional mergers and abolitions with scant regard for academic criteria – has thrown another tough obstacle in the course of universities’ efforts.

Theodorakis speaks out

Iconic 88-year-old composer Mikis Theodorakis has spoken out openly against the Athina plan, which over and above mergers or abolitions of many public institutions has proposed reducing the number of students in remaining universities and further, severe reductions in state funding of institutions.

The composer’s reaction was provoked by the plan’s indirect attempt to abolish the public nature of higher education, which is embodied in article 16 of the Greek constitution, by suggesting that institutions seek private sponsorship and make greater efforts to connect their educational programmes to the demands of the market.

Referring to IMF and EU admissions that the numbers for economic recovery in Greece had been wrong – though this did not lead to corrections to economic policies that are plunging Greeks into greater poverty – the famous composer said:

“Athina is not another mistake; it is a well planned step towards the further downgrading not only of Greek education but also of the whole of Greek society, individually, occupationally, biologically and educationally.”

In the same message, the composer argued that powerful groups “want our people on their knees, obedient, ignorant and submissive without resistance and without national conscience or patriotism, in order to usurp our national resources and in order to turn us into well-behaved slaves; they are taking us back to the period of colonialism”.

In a direct appeal to students, he said: “Don’t let them do that. It is up to you, together with your parents and the rest of the Greek people, to ensure the safety of the country, to take the problems of our motherland in your own hands.”

Negative academic responses

Equally negative has been the reaction of the academic community, distinguished members of which have accused Education Secretary Konstantinos Arvanitopoulos – a university professor – of disregarding academic criteria and acting on the basis of narrow political and economic interests.

The reaction of rectors at their last conference was sharp. They reminded education ministry leaders that the problems of institutions are many and varied, with reduced funding at the top of the list.

They contended that planning for Athina has been done in a quick and casual fashion without factual, documented and substantiated educational methods and without the cooperation of the academic community.

They claimed that the action of the ministry was placing in jeopardy the economic, legal and administrative independence of institutions – with unforeseen consequences for education, research and the future development of the country.

More specifically, they warned the ministry that the proposed federated university Adamandios Korais put forward in the Athina plan, which would merge no less than five higher education institutions in the greater Athens area, was unconstitutional.

Political and public turmoil

Elsewhere in the country reaction to Athina has been extremely hostile. Many presidents of technological institutes have tendered their resignations. Mayors, local councillors, provincial heads and other officials have expressed opposition and determination to oppose the plan.

In parliament, not only the official opposition but also many government MPs have condemned the provisions of the plan and expressed opposition to it, causing a great deal of concern within the fragile three-party ruling coalition.

When the plan was presented to the education and culture committee in parliament, the education secretary was forced to withdraw it, ostensibly for further ‘corrections’ but in reality because committee members were not prepared to approve it in its current state.

Another thorn in the flesh of the academic community and the public is that the government is now proposing to push the plan through by presidential decree, and not by submitting it to the scrutiny of parliament.

The country is divided, communities are in turmoil, schools are occupied and marches and demonstrations are organised on a daily basis. Appeals are mounted in order to inform the public of the consequences of a plan that has nothing to do with education, and does not have the approval of the academic community, students or the public.

Athina is a plan that a long-suffering, impoverished people are finding very difficult to accept.