Strike and conflict keeps universities closed
Meanwhile, Education Minister Kostantinos Arvanitopoulos – perhaps playing the role of Pontius Pilate? – has been demanding the opening of institutions while he seems to be doing much to keep them closed.
Administrative staff in universities went on strike three months ago against government austerity plans that include suspending 1,349 staff, a precursor to large-scale redundancies.
The strike brought eight major universities to a standstill, and rectors warned that they would not be able to function effectively with the staff cuts demanded. Most universities are now back operating but three – Athens University, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the National Technical University of Athens – are resisting.
At these institutions especially, drama continues to unfold, including occupations by students, conflict between university leaders and their governing bodies as well as the government, and active support for the administrative strike by academics.
A female member of the administration at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki became desperate on hearing that her name had been included on the belt-tightening government’s list of those who would be suspended, effectively losing her job.
She walked into the rector’s office on the 7th floor of the admin block, opened the window and tried to jump out. The timely intervention of the rector and other staff in the office prevented her from falling. Medical and psychological support was provided to the woman, who was said to be an excellent employee with long-term service.
It is worth mentioning that suicides in Greece have increased tenfold in the ‘memorandum’ years – the three years since the unpopular memorandum of agreement on austerity measures to tackle Greece’s economic crisis was signed between the government, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.
The rector of the University of Athens, Theodosis Pelegrinis, has sued the institution’s entire management council for slander, asking for €1 million (US$1.4 million) in damages, after the council insisted that the institution be reopened.
This is yet another episode in the long drawn out conflict between newly established management councils, created under higher education reform, and rectors as to who wields power in universities.
Pelegrinis claims that the council issued a statement in which it “insulted heavily my personal and professional respectability as well as my proficiency and honesty in the operation of my duties”. It is possible that this conflict will end when the current situation in strike-ridden universities returns to normal.
During an intense meeting the entire senate of the University of Athens decided to place their resignations in the hands of the rector – to use at his discretion – in protest against the presence of police in the university.
Earlier the education minister had stated that “the period of dialogue has ended and that from now on students and teachers should return to their classrooms. If they are prevented by anyone,” he continued, they would “be dealt with by the state.”
The senate committees of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the National Technical University of Athens also decided to place their resignations at the discretion of their rectors, in protest against the education minister’s tactics. In an unprecedented move, the minister was declare persona non grata by the lecturers federation.
The Athens University senate committee stated that that institution’s entire community – teaching and administrative staff, and students – would support its immediate operation and its mission as a higher education institution under normal circumstances.
However normal circumstances did not exist “as a result of a series of illegal decisions by the Education Ministry.
“We declare the refusal of the teaching staff to proceed to classrooms under the protection of police forces as indicated by the education secretary.” They asked for a meeting with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, to seek a speedy solution to the conflict.
The role of students
The education minister’s claims that “the majority of students want to return to their classes but are prevented by a small minority of fanatics”, does not seem to stand up to examination.
In the school of civil engineering at Athens, the rector himself unlocked classrooms to allow students to take examinations – but only about 10 students out of at least 100 registered were present.
Indeed, the wave of student occupations is increasing at the three major universities in Athens and Salonica.
Students, some accompanied by their parents, who go to the institutions to register, sit exams or ask for information, are reportedly welcomed by strike committees and after discussions, the students reportedly either leave or join their fellow students.
“We support the administrative staff in their struggle against the government’s policies,” said a member of a student strike committee. “And in return we are supported by the academics, our parents and large numbers of the population.
“The government is threatening but it is obvious that it cannot attempt to stop our activity using violence.”
Student union members are responsible for security in institutions they have occupied, and they have denied that any damage has been caused to buildings or property.
“The universities are not closed, as the education secretary claims,” said a fourth year chemistry student. “They are open in a different way. In all the occupied schools are taking place seminars, discussions, film projections, musical events and a variety of other activities.
“We do not prevent anyone who wants to come and join us. We also have a list of people whose responsibility is to make sure that laboratories and university property are safe.”
Some students who have been occupying building for 12 weeks in support of the admin strike said they were not intimidated by the education minister’s threats. “If he dares to call the police he will find against him not only students but also the workers and the entire community because this strike is fair”, one group told the media.
The conflict between the ministry, students, academics and administrative staff has a long way to go.
Although only three universities are actively resisting the government’s higher education actions, a high degree of opposition exists across the entire academic community. Meanwhile, for its part the ministry seems determined not to budge.
Many see it as a hard struggle between two ideologically opposing forces.
On the one side are those in favour of allowing private higher education – which will mean high fees and reduced access for many students. On the other side are those who oppose the market-based neo-liberal approach and want to retain free public higher education.