Greek graduations in doubt

April 6, 2007

No end in sight to the struggle over plans to allow private universities.

Makki Marseilles reports

Fears are growing that students hoping to graduate from Greek universities this year may miss out as a vicious struggle between the Greek Government and the academic community over private universities shows no sign of being resolved.

Each side has accused the other of encouraging the conflict, which has led to strikes, demonstrations and fierce fighting with the police.

Some 320 departments in the country's 16 universities are under student occupation; lecturers have been on strike since the beginning of the academic year.

If the universities do not resume normal operations soon, some students, particularly those taking degree exams, are in danger of losing the semester.

The bone of contention is the Government's intention to reform the Greek constitution to allow private universities and to restrict academic asylum (a privilege earned during the military junta of 1967-74, which prevented the security forces entering higher education establishments).

The Government's plans to reform the constitution were backed by official opposition leader George Papandreou but not by all members of his party. A mishandled vote in the parliamentary reform committee in Februarywas exposed as a major scandal and Mr Papandreou was forced to denounce government tactics and withdraw his support.

The reform was postponed for the next-but-one parliament, well beyond 2010.

The Government then presented a framework legislation for higher education, more a product of its partially thwarted plans than the result of consultations with the academic community. Students and lecturers rejected it out of hand. Trade unions vowed it would not be implemented and a copy was burnt outside parliament.

Marietta Giannakou, the Education Secretary, proposed amendments and toned down some of the tougher provisions, such as those relating to academic asylum, the length of studies and the restrictions on private universities.

But the Government appears to have miscalculated the strength of opposition. Many university chancellors and even staunch government supporters agree that higher education's biggest problems are lack of autonomy and underfunding, not constitutional reform or academic asylum.

This Government won the 2004 general election on a promise that it would increase funding from 3.7 per cent of gross national product to at least 5 per cent. Instead, after three years in power, it has reduced funding to 3.1 per cent of GNP, the lowest of all European Union states. It also abandoned its commitment to free state education for all.

Parents committed to a good education for their offspring face ever escalating costs, while the owners of private colleges, operating either as institutes of liberal studies or under franchise from foreign universities, are dancing to the sound of the cash register.

The framework legislation will probably become law, but it remains to be seen if the unions render it unworkable.

Private universities will not operate for many years yet, and when they do it is doubtful that the competition will help improve the standards at state universities unless extra funding is forthcoming.

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