From 'anarchy' to tragedy

Greece's academy is long overdue for reform, Giorgos Vavouranakis says, but Law 4009's discredited neoliberalism is not the answer

June 14, 2012

Last summer, the Greek parliament passed, by a large majority, legislation setting out an agenda for the reform of higher education.

Those in favour of the law were quick to point to the large number of universities in Greece and the shortage of funding, the problem of absentee students, the frequent protests resulting in damage to university property, and the active participation of student branches of political parties in academic factionalism. Especially leftist groups.

Such groups have been blamed for the spread of anarchy in Greek academia, including in the pages of Times Higher Education ("Styx and stones", 24 May).

But this criticism is inaccurate and hinges on circumstantial abuse rather than the use of the old legislative framework.

The problems in Greek academia have much more to do with populist government policies, which have often served local economic interests and played to a public view of higher education as a marker of social status. It is this approach that is to blame for the drift away from the proper focus on a coherent vision for education and research.

Admittedly, a change in Greek universities is long overdue, but the new law, known as Law 4009, is not what we need.

Its clauses oppose the fundamental principles of the Magna Charta Universitatum, which was signed by the rectors of European universities in Bologna in 1988.

According to the first principle of this document, academia must be "independent of all political authority and economic power". The Greek Constitution has a similar clause. Although academic independence is nominally established in the new Greek law, the transformation of research funding bodies into private corporations subjugates academia to market forces.

In addition, the abolition of the "asylum" policy, under which police were barred from entering university grounds except in instances of flagrant criminal activity, is a major symbolic blow to the principle of academic immunity against state intrusion.

According to the second principle of the Magna Charta, teaching and research are inseparable, but the new Greek law takes us in the opposite direction.

It degrades university departments to providers of undergraduate programmes, with research restricted to postgraduate schools and designated centres of excellence.

Furthermore, the mix-and-match approach to the curriculum threatens to turn graduates from independent scholars and potential professionals into a trained labour force with narrowly focused skills.

It also threatens to exacerbate inequality between "rich" and "poor" disciplines, and to create a further split between active researchers and teaching-only academics.

When all this is taken into account, the new Greek law seems to be not so much about sorting out practical problems as about an elitist turn in academia.

One symptom of this is the top-down restructuring of university administration, with a new executive board taking on most of rectors' responsibilities, as well as appointing school deans (who used to be elected). Similarly, staff members are to be promoted through panel reviews rather than departmental-informed voting.

The law correctly minimises student participation in decision-making, but does not reconstitute the long-disbanded student unions. As a result, it leaves students virtually unrepresented and prey to the student branches of political parties, while it fails to promote any sense of community identity.

If these traits seem familiar to readers of THE, that may be because they largely comprise a direct and uncritical copy-and-paste from the Anglo-Saxon world to the radically different geopolitical, socio-historical and academic context of Greece.

In view of the spate of student protests in London, Quebec and elsewhere, and Harvard University's stand against the profit-driven policies of major journal publishers, the question becomes: why should Greece accept such a package of alien, neoliberalist, market-oriented academic reforms if the tide has already started to turn?

It is no wonder, then, that both students and staff at Greek universities have fiercely and widely opposed Law 4009.

The role of leftist groups in related protests is but the tip of the iceberg. Far more important has been the reluctance of academics to join the executive boards.

The 87 per cent majority by which the law was passed also presents a false picture, since the dismal turnout in the recent national elections demonstrates the extent to which the political parties concerned have lost the consent of the people.

Law 4009 may be implemented eventually, but the real issue at stake is the kind of future we envisage for higher education in Greece, in Europe and in the world.

This future should be based on real freedom of thought, democratic spirit and ethical integrity, and these values should not be compromised by a technocratic legal framework.

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