Lack of funds may not prevent progress

Greek universities were brought to the brink of bankruptcy as a result of the previous government’s policies. These included reductions in state funding of almost 60%, a huge cut in administrative staff to the extent of paralysis, and student transfers from district universities to metropolitan ones beyond the ability of the latter to cater for them.

Following the election of a new left-wing government, the universities were hoping to see some of their losses restored, if not immediately at least in a relatively short time. But now they will have to wait - under very strict conditions.

The new government had a first-class opportunity to put pressure on the German hegemony of the European Union and obtain a favourable outcome for its own strained financial position. But its leaders lost courage at the last minute and, as a result, they left the negotiations in Brussels with a four-month extension to the existing austerity programme – and otherwise empty-handed.

The expectations of the electorate were raised to an enormous height regarding cutting the country’s debt and an accompanying new financial deal that would have led to gradual improvement on the current severe austerity. Anything less would have been judged a failure and, as it happened, Finance Minister Giannis Varoufakis’ quixotic approach has been seen as a complete disaster.

Pushing ahead

Despite the ongoing financial problems, however, the Education Ministry’s leaders are pushing ahead with a number of initiatives that will make all levels of education financially and administratively more effective – starting with legislation to be tabled in parliament next month.

In higher education, the first initiative will be abolition of management councils, introduced under infamous legislation by former Education Secretary Anna Diamantopoulou. The second will affect the so-called ‘eternal students’ who will have the opportunity to continue with their studies, if they so wish, rather than being forced to deregister as the former government intended.

The third measure involves students transferring from institutions where they have succeeded in their exams to another nearer their home for ‘social reasons’, that is, because living conditions are likely to be more favourable. And the fourth is a new scheme for appointing university rectors.

The time scale for introducing the legislation and the steps taken towards its implementation were announced by Education Minister Aristides Baltas at a rectors’ conference where the problems facing higher education were discussed and a plan of action formalised.

Management councils to go

No tears were shed over the abolition of management councils. This plan created an unnecessary and unwanted second tier of management which, instead of facilitating institutional management, generated conflicts. These were exacerbated further by arguments over duties and responsibilities, as well as questions about where the real power in universities resided.

Now the duties of management councils will return to a senate committee which will also have additional responsibility for the election of rectors and vice-rectors. These are due to take place before the end of June, by which time the legislation will have to be in place to allow participation by students – a change strongly promoted by the new ministry’s leadership.

Baltas noted the problems facing higher education but has avoided giving any details as to how he will proceed. He said he was still looking carefully at the current system and that any initiatives and reforms would have to be made on the basis that they did not create difficulties affecting the ministry’s smooth operation – nor present “any kind of discomfort in the life of the students”.

He also revealed that the number of students universities would enrol in the forthcoming academic year and the number of students transferring from one institution to another had yet to be decided. But he was aware of the universities’ severely diminished resources and that in both decisions account would be taken of universities’ ability to cater for the number of students to be enrolled.

Baltas did assure the rectors that he was determined to see all administrative staff return to their previous jobs, given how necessary they were for the proper operation of the institutions.