A tragic chorus

Joining Greek colleagues in Athens in a forlorn protest against cuts to the academy prompts Dennis Smith to wonder who may be next

September 20, 2012

My Greek colleague told me that it would be fine if we arrived a little late for the demonstration in Syntagma Square in central Athens. I soon discovered that 300 assorted college teachers and researchers assembled outside the Ministry of Finance in central Athens at 8.15pm on a Tuesday in mid-September look very similar to a bunch of British academics in Trafalgar Square, only more so: more careworn, more depressed and more anxious. We had been standing around chatting for 10 minutes, a few of us holding placards, before someone handed out candles. It is a Greek custom to light candles at key moments, usually religious. An ancient Greek custom: in fact, they probably invented it.

On this secular occasion - a demonstration against massive cuts, past and future, to academic salaries and pensions organised by the Federation of Greek Universities Teaching and Research Staff Associations - the candles were a symbol of hope that the government would reverse its policy. It is a desperate, hopeless hope, as people around me admitted.

The mood had worsened since I was here last March, before the past two elections. Six months ago, hoteliers and shopkeepers were free with their opinions. They gave interested foreign enquirers mordant analyses of the fraudulent incompetence of their politicians. In September, they shut up like clams or swiftly changed the subject. They are exhausted by worry and anger.

Academics still talk and analyse. They have much to ponder. Greece's original bailout agreement knocked about a third off academic salaries. It seems that university lecturers and assistant professors now earn between EUR1,100 and EUR1,400 a month after stoppages - that is £10,600 to £13,500 a year in take-home pay. Full professors don't do much better. The latest austerity measures mean the government must find EUR11.5 billion more in 2013-14, so it is taking another 25 per cent off university pay. Meanwhile, academics report that the non-salary budgets of universities have been cut by 50 per cent and funding for adjunct faculty such as teaching assistants has been slashed by 70 per cent, with obvious effects in terms of redundancies. Last March, funding was in effect cut still further when universities, like all public sector institutions, were made to invest a slice of their reserves in government bonds issued by the Bank of Greece. Soon after, a restructuring of Greek debt reduced the value of those bonds by about 60 per cent. Nice one. A bank hold-up in reverse: this time it was the bank doing the taking.

As if that were not enough, Law 4009, passed by the Greek parliament last year, insists that university senates, which give representation to university teachers and students alongside professors and administrators, should be abolished and replaced by university councils run by professors and powerful interests from outside the academy, mainly business people. Meanwhile, relatively independent university departments are being broken up and reconfigured as teaching programmes are amalgamated within large, impersonal "schools", and school administrators have instructions to increase the amount of funding they get from business.

Some of this sounds very familiar to British and other European ears. In Greece, there has been serious resistance, which has included strikes and occupations backed by many local university teachers' unions and senates. This has delayed the implementation of Law 4009, but the government has struck back with prosecutions and the threat that funding for 2012 will not be released in full until the new university councils have been established.

Because of all that and more, we gathered in front of the Ministry of Finance building on that Tuesday evening. When we had all got our candles, we paraded around the block. On one side of us were the TV cameras; on the other side was a line of about a dozen young policemen with riot shields, one for every 25 academics - not a bad staff-to-student ratio. It was too early to light the candles. There was a bit of a breeze blowing. After our third right turn (one for every recent change of government), we crossed the road, stopping the evening traffic, to enter Syntagma Square, the scene of so much bloody mayhem over recent months. We carried on through the square and came to a halt in front of the parliament building. At last we could light our candles, although mine blew out fairly quickly. We milled around, friends chatting, a good-tempered melange of little seminars next to the memorial to the Unknown Soldier ("the most sacred spot in Athens"), completely ignored by the magnificently attired soldiers performing their ceremonial duties outside parliament.

After some photographs were taken by the press, the gathering dispersed. As I crossed the road back towards the square, a couple of dogs, wandering freely but with collars on, picked their way through the traffic, barking playfully at passing motorcyclists. A Greek colleague explained that the dogs were strays but were protected by the city government, which made sure that they were vaccinated. They seemed tame and friendly enough. Is this what Greek academics can look forward to? And maybe, soon, the rest of us?

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