Asylum abolition brings student arrests

Thirty-one students at Athens University were arrested by shield-carrying riot police who had been called in by the institution’s governing board when a meeting – dealing with provisions in the Education Ministry’s Athina Plan for university reform – was disrupted.

The students, who locked themselves into the central building, objected to the plan, which includes the closure of four universities and dozens of departments, subjects and technical colleges.

As a result, thousands of students will have to move to different cities in order to complete their studies, while others might even have to choose another discipline.

The police, who more often than not 'use a sledgehammer to crack a nut', used tear gas to dislodge the students, causing many businesspeople in the busy main street to close their shutters in anticipation of more serious trouble. That did not materialise, given that it is the middle of summer with most students away.

The appearance of shield-toting riot police, fully equipped with tear gas and plastic bullets, in the precincts of the university is causing consternation in the academic community following the abolition of ‘asylum’ by law 4009/11 introduced by former education secretary Anna Diamantopoulou.

The university as an ‘asylum’

In Greece, the university has a broader significance than that of a learning institution. It also carries the sense of an ‘asylum’ – a sanctuary – a place where students and academics can pursue their ideas freely and safely, protected from political, social, economic and other kinds of pressure that might prevent them from doing so.

In antiquity, asylum=sanctuary was provided at temples or places of worship: a fugitive from the law became inviolable if sanctuary was sought in a temple or at the feet of a god’s statue. The Harpies, those charming old hags with their excessively sharp fangs and nails, could not drag him away and tear him to pieces, as they were otherwise wont to do.

The classical myth has Orestes seeking asylum at the feet of goddess Athena’s bronze statue in Acropolis after killing his mother Clytemnestra, who had killed her husband Agamemnon, Troy’s conqueror. Matricide in antiquity was a far more heinous crime than chopping up a husband in his bath, particularly one who had violated his matrimonial vows; after all the Harpies were female deities.

Political asylum is the modern version of the ancient ritual, with the most topical cases being Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, who are currently said to be enjoying this type of protection shut up at embassies or airports instead of religious temples, hotly pursued by security services instead of the ancient Harpies. But the analogy holds.

Higher education ‘reforms’

Traditionally the Greek university has been the purveyor of not only knowledge but also democracy and freedom. The colonel’s junta knew this, which is why the military government placed universities under control in 1967. It so happened that seven years later, the junta’s demise started on campuses, with the active participation of students.

Successive governments since the restoration of democracy have attempted to abolish this ‘curious anachronism’, as they have termed it.

But the academic community, particularly those who had suffered for their non-systemic ideas, staunchly resisted such efforts, always with the active support of students, who did not fail to anticipate what would follow abolition.

And so it came to pass that a supposedly left-wing politician, a former European commissioner and scion of the Papandreou legacy in the Socialist Party, Anna Diamantopoulou, brought in legislation that introduced university management councils and the abolition of asylum, and the kernel of the Athina plan.

The plan is now promoted by the person who was at the time her deputy, current Education Secretary Kostas Arvanitopoulos, who managed to get it through parliament with an increased majority during the years of coalition governments headed by bank managers.

Both these provisions have brought hardship to universities across the country and are likely to continue to do so for a long time to come.

The management councils are struggling to find their role, while rectors have managed to secure their positions until the end of the period for which they were elected. The result is parallel management with obvious negative impacts on decision-making and the operation of institutions.

The abolition of asylum has left dissenting students and academics rather exposed.

If they react dynamically against board decisions, if their criticism or dissent exceeds carefully defined borders, they could face arrest and prosecution by the police who – after decades of exclusion from university precincts – are now ever present and can come and go much more freely than students themselves.