Election offers universities new hope

Greeks go to the polls on Sunday 25 January to elect the 300 members of the Hellenic parliament. Pre-polling suggests that left-wing leader Alexis Tsipras may win enough seats to eject Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who has alienated the public and profoundly affected universities with his savage spending cuts.

Universities have suffered enormously as a result of the Samaras government’s response to the European financial meltdown. In the past five years, public higher education has lost 60% of its state grants, with the result that many courses and services to students have had to be cancelled or drastically curtailled.

Moreover, large-scale cuts in administrative personnel brought the institutions almost to a standstill. The two main metropolitan universities, Athens and the Technological University, were forced to lay off more than 450 administrative staff, and volunteers had to step in to run the student registry.

Provincial universities were hit harder than most by the state grant cuts, which forced them to slash courses, staff and services, leaving students who had already applied to enrol in the courses to find alternatives in other institutions.

More than 30,000 students, almost 50% of the total student population, had to re-apply for a university place. The majority opted for a metropolitan university and this caused enormous pressure on the institutions because of the lack of funds and available staff.

But it is the Samaras government that has seemed determined to strangle the public universities economically while opening the way for private tertiary institutions to set up operations and compete with the public universities for students and government grants.

Then there are the contradictions and malfunctions of a two-tier management structure imposed on the universities by a parliamentary act by former education secretary Anna Diamantopoulou who, to the great relief of those involved with higher education, is not standing for re-election.

Under the Diamantopoulou legislation, a ‘management council’ was established made up of mostly superannuated professors, to form an additional tier of management in direct conflict with the rectors and deans.

Recently, the management council called for elections of the rectors and deans without observing the legal requirements. This led to the elections being declared null and void and they had to be held again. Now the outcome of those elections is uncertain because the State Council is reviewing the results following a number of objections by unsuccessful candidates.

An example of the consequences of appointing the wrong people to head a university is the recently elected rector at Athens University, Theodore Fortsakis. He has now left the institution to follow a political career with Samaras – but during his brief time in charge at Athens he caused a management upheaval.

The forceful Fortsakis alienated his colleagues and faced direct conflict with the students by locking them out of the university for two weeks and subsequently threatening to introduce electronic face control and private security at the university.

His vice-rectors were so critical of his various actions they have promised to publish a letter with their views after the election.