From Where I Sit - The unkindest cuts

December 20, 2012

"Nobody wants to come visit us any more." That's what I was told by a lecturer at the University of Athens a few weeks ago. I had deliberately made my way to Athens to see for myself the effects of austerity in the Greek capital. "Austerity", I had learned, should not be confused with "scarcity". Scarcity is when you have run out of sufficient resources. Austerity is when your resources are being managed in such a way as to simulate a condition of scarcity. And austerity is all about finding a balance in the distribution of purposefully reduced resources, even if the balance is ultimately unfair, unproductive, counter-productive - or, while a boon to some, downright cruel to others.

At first, when you arrive in Athens, what you see aren't signs of austerity but signs of protest against austerity. Graffiti are everywhere - except for national monuments, such as the ruins of the ancient Agora, which the graffiti artists and scribblers leave alone. Protest marches are a daily affair. And many of the high-end shops along the major protest route, such as Hermès and Brooks Brothers, have had to shield their show windows at night with great metal shutters - which the graffiti writers do not leave alone.

But it is not just protest that is visible, once you become acclimatised to the scene before you. Everywhere there is dirt, closed-up shops, and empty and derelict buildings. Athens is still what it has been for a generation - a great thriving and modern megalopolis. Even in the off-season, when the tourists are gone, it is a vibrant place, a city of cafés, tavernas and bars, of walkers and shoppers and talkers. But it is starting to fall apart.

The universities in Greece have not (yet) been hit by any draconian measures. They are open for business. Tuition is free. But they are being starved of cash. Lecturers have seen their pay cut by as much as 50 per cent, leaving the people who volunteered this information to me with salaries of about £970 a month. Meanwhile, there is little money left for things such as research trips, or for inviting guest lecturers, or for replacing lecturers who retire. The English department at Athens, one of two I visited, has lost a number to retirement recently. It is one of the larger English departments in Europe outside the UK, with more than 2,000 students, but it has only 30 permanent staff members, bolstered by two senior teaching fellows. That's a student-to-stable-staff ratio of 63:1.

What I did not encounter during my stay in Athens was demoralisation. Even among the unemployed people I spoke to - and 25 per cent of Greeks are now unemployed - there was belief that Greece would tough it out. And the students and academics I met were as enthusiastic about their subject and as dedicated to learning as students and academics anywhere I have been in Europe (I lectured on Julius Caesar). But if people were not demoralised, they were angry and confused about what was happening to them. They were befuddled about what would happen next. The government is continually issuing new "reforms", new budgetary settlements, new cuts and new assurances that few people believe in. Academic departments, much like other organisations in Greece, are unable to plan for the future because they simply do not know what is or will be required of them next, or what they will be given the freedom to devise for themselves.

And so nobody comes to visit them any more. Nobody wants to. Or nobody can afford to. And few people, alas, can be invited. But if there is to be any solidarity among academics in Europe, the time for solidarity is now.

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