Universities can lead recovery from shock of austerity

Without a doubt the austerity measures imposed on Greece by its European partners more than seven years ago seriously affected the country’s universities and other higher education institutions.

Although it could be argued that historically educational establishments of all levels habitually suffered from inadequate funding, the problem became significantly more acute: educational projects were postponed or cancelled; administrative staff became redundant and wages and salaries were cut; equipment was not renewed; new academic appointments were shelved; and the number of students was reduced.

Funds for research were severely cut and academic wages were sharply reduced. The entire academic community suffered a severe shock and it is doubtful whether it has as yet fully recovered.

Successive government policies at the back end of the last century and the start of the new have brought the country to its knees and education suffered.

The present left-wing government, which won the elections in 2015, was obliged to abandon its own programme and carry out the terms dictated by the creditors in successive memoranda signed, sealed and delivered by those – including previous governments, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Union leaders – who created the situation in the first place. It subsequently had to make an agreement of its own with the same creditors.

The Greek Orthodox Church has not helped either. A reactionary body, its influence extends far beyond matters of dogma to all matters of state. Successive education ministers who attempted even mild reforms in the teaching of the religious instruction were sacked at the request of the archbishop; and schoolbooks are not published or adopted unless the church approves of their content.

Recently, the church has found an unexpected ally in the senior judges of the Council of State who appear to support its anachronistic views, forming an unholy alliance of church and justice which arrests progress. On the surface of it, Greece is a modern, democratic, enlightened country but deep down it resembles religious fundamentalist countries such as Iran or Saudi Arabia.

Universities that were not exactly over-funded during normal economic times saw their state grants severely curtailed; and when the last conservative government accepted a much-lauded PSI (national debt haircut by €100 billion) in 2014 they saw their reserves practically disappear into thin air.

The first to go were some unpopular departments and the reduction of the student population.

In 2011, the first full year of austerity measures, the then education minister, Anna Diamantopoulou, reduced the student population by more than 10,000 and the numbers were further reduced in successive years by successive ministers.

Currently the left-wing government is trying to redress the balance and recently the Education Minister, Kostas Gavroglou, announced that nearly 4,000 additional places will be available, but that will only bring the student population back up to the 2011 levels (around 75,000).

He also announced that an additional €51 million (US$62 million) will be made available to the universities and other higher education institutions – a 45% increase in their existing funds – from savings as a result of good financial management.

Students and their families were affected severely by austerity. Incomes were reduced or gone completely and students were asked to quickly adjust to the new conditions, which were unprecedented and people were therefore not ready to face them. Many students had to abandon their studies, while others sought to be transferred to universities or educational institutions nearer home so they could live with their parents.

Students who had gone abroad found it extremely difficult to continue their studies, although educational expenses were excluded from the capital controls which were imposed in the country.

Families with more than one child, each studying in different cities, were struggling to pay two sets of accommodation costs and it is only recently that the present government has brought legislation allowing siblings to transfer in order to study in the same city or in the city where the family home is.

Speaking at an educational conference last month, Gavroglou said that only about 30% of students have the possibility of studying in the institution of their choice and occasionally students had to accept their 30th or 50th choice.

In the current educational environment, students more or less abandon the last class of senior high school in order to concentrate on the frontistirio – a parallel private educational level which prepares students for the university entrance exams. This can cost families between €500 and €2,000 a month, and together they pay more than €2 billion every year.

In 2020 students are expected to be able to enter university with their school-leaving certificate – perhaps also dependent on their grades in certain subjects – giving parents a much-needed financial relief and freeing students from the terror of the dreaded university entrance examinations.

Postgraduate and doctoral students were also hit hard by the recession. Whether on a grant (very scarce) or paying themselves (more common), the available money has been extremely tight. Access to books and libraries became difficult. In many cases, the institutions did not renew their membership with international libraries because of lack of funds and the students did not have access to the international sources.

They had to think twice before going to seminars and conferences if the cost was not covered for them by another source. Lack of funds forced them to seek employment and therefore the time available for study, research and writing became limited.

Andronikos Kaliris, 35, who has recently finished his doctoral thesis at Athens University, confirms the situation and the many difficulties he faced in order to reach his present circumstances. “I financed my own doctoral thesis and I had to face many difficulties in order to access books, manuscripts and attend the meetings and conferences which were necessary for the completion of my work,” he said.

One of the biggest problems facing students is the mismatch of degrees and the labour market, as reported by an OECD report, which said: “Recent evidence suggests that there is a growing mismatch of skills between the workforce and labour market, factors which contribute to unemployment and limit growth”.

According to Katerina Argyropoulou, associate professor at the University of Athens, if this is not corrected soon graduates will be disappointed and will leave the country, contributing to the brain drain that arrests growth.

Academics’ income slashed

Academics did not escape the consequences of the recession. They saw their income reduced by an average 30%. Their ability to make available part of that income for memberships to international magazines, purchasing of books, attending conferences and meeting colleagues was severally curtailed; and their private lives were affected as much as the rest of the population.

It is said that recently the Council of State, the country’s highest judicial authority, has declared these cuts on academic salaries unconstitutional, but it is not quite clear if and when or even whether the academics will receive any payment retrospectively or even see their salaries return to the pre-austerity levels.

The austerity programme – imposed by the creditors, and involving cuts in salaries and pensions, privatisation of electricity and water, the sale of airport, ports and other valuable national assets – and the several memoranda that Greece had to sign in order to receive financial help from its partners in the EU and the IMF resulted in serious reclassification in many areas and education was not an exception.

The educational policy of the last century was abandoned and a ‘big is beautiful’ policy adopted. The merging of universities and technological colleges has become the order of the day, ostensibly to maximise academic and financial resources but in reality dictated by the EU and the OECD (which many Greeks now see as a chthonian organisation, the long arm of aggressive neo-liberal capitalism).

A typical example is the creation of the University of West Attica, a merging of the Athens and Piraeus technological colleges. Similar mergers are under way in Ipiros, Macedonia and Thessalia. Although the immediate benefits of this policy are perhaps obvious, the long-term future possibilities are not.

Eleftheria Argyropoulou, assistant professor at the University of Crete, says that the EU and OECD propose schemes that are welcome and may very well have been successful in other countries but should not be implemented without taking into account the peculiarities of the Greek reality (large number of islands, mountainous remote areas, homogeneity of population, religious, cultural, social conditions etc).

The future prospects of higher education in Greece are thought to be excellent provided the country comes out of the austerity or recession and is led towards development and advancement – and higher education can be the powerhouse driving that change.

The conditions are favourable. The country is geographically in a very privileged position, surrounded by less developed countries either educationally, economically, socially or culturally. The Middle East is also close enough and when that area is pacified, Greece could take advantage of the opportunities that will be offered there.

It will have gained significant goodwill from the huge help it has provided to immigrants from that region fleeing the war. They found welcome sanctuary on the shores of Greece when many other European countries – Poland, Hungary, Romania and Austria – kept their borders hermetically closed.

The country processes well-trained academic and administrative personnel, it is a member of the EU, part of West Europe, and has a very large diaspora on the five continents, with all the advantages that accrue from such a position, both for itself and its neighbours.

What it needs is a new generation of politicians who will realise the potential of the country, with the vision and the strength to discard old, worn-out practices and adopt new ideas, both for the benefit of the country and the region as a whole.