Styx and stones

It may be the birthplace of the academy, but Greece’s now-dysfunctional higher education system is on its knees and in desperate need of reform, argues George Th. Mavrogordatos. However, the country’s politique du pire and its organised violence threaten the possibility of progress

May 24, 2012

Credit: GettyBarriers to reform: the self-interest of Greece’s left-wing parties has spread violence, lowered standards and done nothing to advance the working-class cause

In the midst of crisis, Greece needs its universities now more than ever - but Greek universities cannot serve their country. With a new university law in limbo, they are decaying, increasingly paralysed, barely operating. Ideally, they should be spearheading an effective response to the debt crisis, primarily by educating qualified, self-confident and productive young people. Instead, the universities actually look like the most hopeless component of the Greek crisis.

The passage of Law 4009 in August last year by an overwhelming majority of more than 260 MPs (or 87 per cent in a parliament of 300) understandably created great expectations, despite the flaws and ambiguities of the legislation. But the law is not being enforced and faculty and students now appear more frustrated and demoralised than ever. With reform blocked at home, they can only seek (or dream of) prospects abroad.

For the past few months, organised violence has prevented the holding of elections for the new university authorities foreseen by the law, except in seven polytechnics, thereby blocking the implementation of the other provisions. The violence has been orchestrated by the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), the radical Left party Syriza and groups of the extraparliamentary Left, in collusion with the sitting university rectors and their associates among the faculty. One such official at the University of Crete was thus recently heard boasting (by a colleague of mine) that every time he is against a meeting or other event, he only has to call the Syriza youth organisation to break it up. As this example amply demonstrates, both the mentality and the method are typically fascist, even though the storm troopers and flying squads moving from one university town to the next are supplied by nominally left-wing parties and groups.

Violence and lawlessness have been endemic in Greek universities ever since the previous law, Law 1268, instituted the so-called “university asylum” in 1982. This was a delayed reaction to police intrusions before and during the military dictatorship of 1967-74, as if a future dictatorship would respect the asylum. It forbade the entry of the police on university grounds (including even halls of residence) without the prior consent of collective university bodies, which was practically never given. In the absence of a university police or security service, this absurd invention in practice created an area where the rule of law was effectively suspended. As a result, one’s physical safety and property have been perpetually at risk inside the university. As a student (and student leader) in the early 1960s, I felt a lot safer than as a professor since 1982, in the very same university buildings.

Moreover, university grounds became a sanctuary for the protagonists of violent disorder in Greek cities - as occurred during the riots of December 2008 - and for their arsenals, stocked with crowbars and Molotov cocktails. Campuses also offered a safe haven for illegal activities such as drug trafficking, and university property (such as computers and, most recently, projectors) was systematically plundered or else wantonly destroyed, including the irreplaceable results of decades of scientific research. It goes without saying that this situation has had a profoundly depressing effect on the morale and motivation of students, professors and other researchers.

After almost 30 years of such lawlessness, Law 4009 at last abolished the asylum, but no preparation of any kind was made for the new legal situation. As if the asylum were still in force, the police still refrain from entering university grounds and university authorities still refrain from calling them. This is precisely what has allowed today’s obstructionist coalition of party thugs, rectors and associates to impose their will by brute force and prevent scheduled elections, against the overwhelming but peaceable majority of both faculty and students. Again, this sort of imposition historically has been the very essence of fascism.

Why such determined opposition to the new law? It stems from the various vested interests that it threatens. Foremost among them are party interests. These were served primarily by the disproportionately large student representation instituted by Law 1268 for university bodies and elections. In practice, student representation was hijacked and appropriated by external party machines. The real students, those who actually attend classes on a regular basis, were effectively disenfranchised. They have had absolutely no voice in university affairs.

Thanks to compulsory proportional representation in student elections, each political party obtained its share of student seats on university bodies and of student electors in the appointment of rectors, deans and departmental chairs. Consequently, such elections were systematically predetermined by party deals. This is how the rectors who now oppose the new law were chosen.

A university thoroughly penetrated and permeated by party machines not only served the ambitions of those seeking office, like the incumbent rectors, but also the careers of faculty and other personnel who would never have been appointed or promoted on merit alone. They were, nonetheless, appointed and promoted thanks to the support of their own party and the collusion of the others in a spirit of reciprocity. Only those without party protection suffered. Party domination also served the interests of students who might never have passed examinations or got degrees on their own. Thanks to their position in the party organisations, they got grades, degrees, admission to postgraduate programmes, perhaps even doctorates.

Law 4009 promises to put an end to all this by doing away with student representation altogether, except for a single representative to be elected directly by the entire student body in each university. This is expected to reduce, if not nullify, party influence and therefore threatens the very survival of the party youth organisations ensconced in Greek universities. No wonder these are all opposed to the new law, including even those belonging to the parties that had voted for it.

Nevertheless, it is the parties of the Left (KKE, Syriza and extraparliamentary) that have most to lose and this explains their savage determination to block the reform by any and all means. Under the old system, they yielded influence incommensurate with their minority shares of the student vote. This was thanks to their readiness to use violence with impunity - just as they do now. They would thus routinely prevent or break up the meetings of university bodies (or threaten to do so if their demands were not met), disrupt classes and exams, occupy buildings, offices and labs, and manhandle students or even professors.

The staggering waste of human potential in Greek higher education parallels the shocking waste of material resources. Opponents of the reform vociferously denounce cuts in academic salaries and university funding. Although real, these are usually exaggerated and distorted in the most misleading manner. They are also falsely attributed to the reform itself, even though they are actually dictated by the country’s crippling debt crisis.

The bitter truth is that Greek higher education, funded almost entirely by the taxpayer, has been and continues to be abysmally wasteful. Universities and polytechnics (whose Greek acronym is TEI) have mushroomed, dispersed haphazardly all over the country in response to local demands, like army camps used to be. This constitutes an exorbitant investment in the overproduction of unemployable graduates. Superfluous or even fanciful departments were created as baronies of influential academics. Thanks to generous transfer rules and corrupt practices, students admitted to peripheral institutions were allowed to desert them en masse for their home towns or the cities, leaving an empty but costly shell behind. Perhaps the most striking proof of the total disjunction between higher education and the economy is provided by the closing down of several peripheral TEIs specialising in tourism - for lack of students.

Absentee and “eternal” students, taking forever to complete their studies, have also been a major source of waste. The related provision of free textbooks to students constitutes probably the most extreme and inexcusable dissipation. Although instituted by Greece’s military dictatorship in 1968, it has been regarded ever since as a sacrosanct “democratic” entitlement that nobody dares question. Instead of expanding the perennially underfunded and usually inadequate libraries, enormous sums have been wasted on free textbooks, which are routinely destroyed once the relevant exams are passed. Many professors and publishers have ruthlessly enriched themselves by this spending spree at the expense of the taxpayer, while the Ministry of Education has been locked in a perpetual struggle to control it.

As this example shows, a sizeable portion of the professors in Greece do not live on their salary alone. Beside the textbooks, they can also enrich themselves in myriad other ways, whether by lucrative parallel appointments in the public sector or else by their private practices as professionals in the private sector (such as doctors, lawyers, architects and engineers). Absenteeism from teaching is a perennial problem, but Greek professors are seldom, if ever, held accountable for what they do (or do not do). They are normally shielded by the unconditional solidarity of their colleagues. If need be, many can also count on the protection of their own political party and its student branch.

Consequently, such professors are hardly entitled to complain about salaries and salary cuts, as they do today. Moreover, enormous waste has resulted from the warped priorities of the most influential among them, including the lavish projects dear to many rectors. Even today, whatever funds are available continue to be expended needlessly rather than be “lost” (by being returned to the Treasury).

Whereas the resistance of vested interests may be understandable, what is perhaps most puzzling is the policy of the Left and especially its oldest and most consistent component: the KKE. Ever since its legalisation after the fall of the junta in 1974, the KKE has systematically blocked every single attempt to raise academic standards and improve higher education. All such attempts have been demonised as an “intensification” of studies - as if these were tantamount to an actual assembly line and involved an intensification of “exploitation” on the part of capitalists.

The KKE’s only intelligible argument against “intensification” has always invoked the students who actually work and their presumed inability to attend classes. Yet, this concern has been completely hypocritical. There has never been the slightest interest in proposing or even just discussing alternative programmes and schedules that would indeed serve working students without lowering standards for everybody. Instead, the KKE has in fact become the champion of the eternal students, including those who seek to pass exams solely by cheating.

One is at a loss to explain this politique du pire on the part of a supposedly progressive and farsighted party, which also claims to be in favour of free public education for all but actually undermines it systematically to the eventual benefit of private education (in Greece or abroad) for those who can afford it. Perhaps the only rational explanation can be gleaned from the traditional anti-communist insight that communist parties draw support more from a discontented intellectual proletariat than from the actual working class. If so, the KKE may be deliberately increasing a mass of half-educated and otherwise unemployable graduates as its own future army of supporters.

Stalled by violence, Law 4009 was almost scuttled by cunning when a former rector of the University of Athens became interim minister of education on 7 March for just two months, until the parliamentary election held on 6 May. This was Georgios Babiniotis, a retired professor of linguistics who is very influential through various foundations.

After barely 10 days in office, Babiniotis met with the obstructionist rectors and agreed with them to decouple university funding from the implementation of Law 4009 - a move that was generally perceived as the kiss of death for the reform. He even proclaimed the law to be “unworkable” and appointed a committee from its most vocal detractors to propose changes.

Babiniotis failed to appreciate the stopgap nature of his appointment and provoked a remarkably widespread reaction against his initiatives. Lamely threatening to resign but in fact clinging to his post, he was ultimately forced to withdraw all his amendments, while the committee itself was broadened. Nonetheless, he did manage to prolong the deadlock over Law 4009 until after the general election, held this month - if not indefinitely.

In fact, the election did not produce a majority and a new one is to follow. However, it did result in the remarkable rise of Syriza and the fall from parliamentary office of Anna Diamantopoulou, whose greatest achievement in her time as minister of education was precisely Law 4009. Those are bad omens for the law and for university reform in general.

George Th. Mavrogordatos

‘Trapped in a system that subverts goals, corrupts ideals and forsakes the public’

“Greece’s system of higher education suffers from a crisis of values as well as outdated policies and organisational structures. The tragedy is that leaders, scholars, students and political parties that aim to promote the public good have been trapped in a system that subverts the goals they seek, corrupts the ideals they pursue and forsakes the public they serve.”

This was the verdict of an international group of academic leaders who examined the country’s higher education sector in 2010.

The International Advisory Committee on Greek Higher Education criticised the lack of security on and politicisation of Greek campuses, plus the academy’s inadequate systems of governance.

The committee’s conclusions were cited in a 2011 report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which called for Greece to “act swiftly” to establish a new legal, governance, financial and accountability framework for its university system.

Education Policy Advice for Greece highlighted “acute” problems with Greek higher education, including high dropout rates and high graduate unemployment.

“Because there has been essentially no incentive for university students to complete degrees and limited - if any - requirements at universities that students actually attend lectures, or sit for examinations, thousands of students remain technically ‘registered’ but are basically not in attendance,” the report explained.

Speaking at the launch of the report in August last year, Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the OECD, congratulated the “courageous” efforts of the Greek government to reform its educational system.

“We all know how difficult it is to introduce bold reforms which, while aiming to enhance the public good, fly in the face of vested interests,” he said.

But angry demonstrations have blocked the implementation of Law 4009, the new law that would reform Greek higher education and that aims to improve its efficiency and accountability.

Opponents argue that the law threatens universities’ independence and that measures to encourage sponsorship and donations pave the way for privatisation. University rectors and students have spoken out against it.

One area of particular controversy has been the change to the voting system, which reduces students’ power over the election of university heads and staff. However, advocates for change say that party-controlled student groups have held far too much sway over the system for too long, even over examination grades.

Law 4009 also abolishes the “asylum” provision that stopped police officers from entering university campuses without the permission of rectors.

Earlier this year, Anna Diamantopoulou, the former Greek higher education minister, said that protesters delaying the legislation were “holding hostage the vast majority of faculty and students”.

Credit: OECD

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