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The Plight of Greek Higher Education

Greek higher education has been, for the past four years, under a double attack, both by crippling austerity-induced budget cuts and by an attempt to accelerate the imposition of aggressively neoliberal reforms towards an entrepreneurial model of higher education.

To understand the importance of these processes, we must take into consideration the role of higher education in Greece as a contested terrain of social struggles. For a long time one of the basic forms of upward social mobility, access to a public higher education was considered at the same time a basic social right and something worth fighting for, both individually and collectively. The history of higher education in Greece after WWII is a history of important student and university movements, which challenged post-Civil War authoritarianism, were instrumental in the overthrow of the 1967-74 dictatorship, contributed to the evolution of radical and left-wing politics, clashed with neoliberal policies, and in many instances offered an example and model of militancy and successful struggle.

At present, the state of higher education in Greece is defined by the country’s severe economic and sovereign debt crisis and responses made to it. In reality, since 2010, Greece has been the testing ground for a large-scale experiment in neoliberal social engineering. It was at this time that the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank imposed austerity upon Greece in return for the bail-out loans that the country needed to avoid sovereign default and remain within the Eurozone. The measures negotiated and imposed as part of the bail-out agreements do not aim simply at dealing with debt; in fact, debt has risen in this period. Rather, they are aimed at profoundly changing the social fabric. Education could not be spared from such a process, especially since all over Europe in the 2000s education reforms, particularly those involving higher education, have been seen as means to introduce increased competitiveness.

What are the consequences of austerity policies for Greek universities? University budgets, which cover all necessary funding for the everyday functioning of universities except salaries, have been slashed by about 50% in comparison to 2009. When, in 2012, a large part of the Greek sovereign debt was restructured (the infamous “haircut” of the Greek Debt), universities were badly hit because they had been obliged to keep their savings in government bonds. Some major universities have had problems paying for phone and electricity bills. Funding for adjunct lecturers has been practically eliminated, leading to severe shortages of teaching personnel, especially in provincial universities. Along with the delay in appointing elected faculty members, this has led to a significant reduction of the total number of professors, lecturers, and adjuncts all over Greece.

Departments face difficulties even in finding resources for basic needs such as printing material for printers and photocopiers. Were it not for research funding coming from the European Union, Greek universities might have fully collapsed. Lecturers’ and professors’ salaries have been reduced by more than 30% as part of broader tendency toward wage cuts across the entire public sector. As part of the attempt to reduce the total number of public sector employees, more than 1,100 administrative employees were suspended from their duties. This is part of the movement toward “reorganizing the administrative apparatus of the state,” which is one of the obligations Greece undertook under the terms of the bail-out agreements. Of these 1,100 employees only 600 will be reappointed (as part of a “mobility scheme”), in many instances transferred to universities other than the one in which they have previously worked. This means that there are going to be hundreds of lay-offs that will increase the number of unemployed in a country with an official rate of unemployment of 27.8%. This will also cripple the universities’ ability to function even further. Greece’s creditors have set specific goals for public sector lay-offs and the continuation of the loans had been conditional upon meeting these goals.

The systematic shrinking of Greek higher education is not a just a by-product of austerity, but also a reflection of profound changes in Greek society. In the new emerging architecture of the European Union, Greece is offered a peripheral and subaltern role that receives less investment in high value-added or high technical skills sectors. Consequently, the scientific and technological base of the country is downsized. As a direct result of the crisis, there has already been an impressive brain-drain, with almost 120,000 degree holders having migrated out of the country. Consequently, the government is pressing for closures or mergers of higher education institutions. Phase one of the project was the so-called “Athena 1” plan in 2013, which led to significant closures, especially in higher technical education, and now the Greek government has already announced an “Athena 2” plan. It is important to stress that the attempt to implicate quality assurance and accreditation mechanisms in Greece has been used as a means to justify the “spatial restructuring” (a euphemism for closures) of Greek higher education institutions.

During the 2000s, neoliberal reforms in general had already given rise to bitter and prolonged struggles against attempts to implement changes in line with the “Bologna Process” agreed upon by most European Union nations in 1999. This process was an attempt to bring European higher education closer to the “Anglo-Saxon” model, both in the sense of introducing three-year BA programs that act as simple preparation for various forms of “life-long learning,” and of making higher education much more responsive to the needs of capitalist enterprises. In Greece, this included an attempt to impose an Amendment that would lift the explicit ban on private higher education in Article 16 of the Greek Constitution — an attempt that was defeated by mass student and faculty strikes in 2006-7. In the end, private colleges were indirectly recognized because of EU regulations that imposed, over strong protest, the obligatory recognition of qualifications related to degrees offered by private franchises of institutions that are accredited in their countries of origin.

Moreover, because of the tradition of student radicalism, these reforms have also assumed a disciplinary role by introducing intensified study schedules and obstacles to student union activity. Impressive displays of youth activism and contestation, such as the mass rioting for over a month that followed the murder of a 15-year-old youth by a policeman in December 2008, made this an emergent concern for systemic forces in Greece.

These earlier reforms set the stage for the reforms that followed from the acceptance of the austerity packages. As already mentioned, these packages were never simply about reducing state expenses; they aimed at structural reforms. The result has been a series of legislative initiatives beginning with the laws 4009/2011 and 4076/2012. These laws have abolished the elements of participatory academic democracy that were in place since reforms in 1982 that led to extensive student, faculty, and administrative-personnel participation in Senates and Department Assemblies and the election of rectors, deans, and department heads. They have stripped Senates of student participation and curtailed their authority by transferring important decisions to the newly introduced “university councils” — oligarchic institutions comprised of academics and “representatives of society and the business world,” which are modeled upon North American boards of trustees. These councils not only have extensive authority, especially regarding university finances, but also can screen and pre-select candidates for elected offices in universities. Already there have been instances where candidates for rectors and deans have been banned by university councils from entering elections for these positions because they had been vocal opponents of new legislation. The introduction of these university councils was met with strong protest from students and faculty unions and their election was delayed for months because of blockades on the days of elections. The government finally had to introduce e-voting practices in order to avoid such blockades.

Moreover, this new legislation finally abolished the “University Sanctuary,” which forbade forces of order from entering university premises without permission from university authorities. This development has held not only a particular symbolic importance in the drastic changes of character being suffered by the public university culture, but also great practical value for the state, which has felt threatened by student activism. The death of the University Sanctuary has already led to police forces raiding university premises, including the mass arrest of protesting students at the University of Athens in July 2013.

At the strategic level, this new legislation has also imposed an administrative overhaul of Greek universities, in order not only to reduce the need for administrative personnel but also to introduce new forms of academic management, especially in relation to funding. The centerpiece of this effort has been the transfer of all funding to a special agency within every university that will function as a private corporation. Underfunding is used as pressure mechanism to seek private funding and various forms of sponsorship.

Currently, Greek universities are at an impasse. The prospect of mass lay-offs, serious economic problems, and constant clashes with university councils makes things difficult. Although the government and pro-reform faculty members (who usually are the ones that enjoy ties to political power and sources of funding) project the image that the reforms are hard but necessary, in reality Greek higher education is in crisis. The only way out is a strong movement for a public and democratic higher education. Hopefully, the combination of student anger over being treated as a “lost generation” with the despair of administrative personnel and the insecurity of many faculty members will offer the potential for major confrontations within Greek universities. The fight is far from over.

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Panagiotis Sotiris

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