Strike threat over Greece's 'unworkable' education bill

Scholars fight to halt effort to streamline sector and make it more accountable. Jack Grove reports

August 4, 2011

Credit: Reuters
Adding to unrest: Academics are concerned that new contracts and underfunding of research will lead to a brain drain of talent

Academics in Greece may strike next month if government plans to overhaul higher education are approved.

Proposals to reform university governance and decision-making are likely to be made law by parliament later this month.

But the Council of Rectors, which represents leaders of Greek universities, voted on 24 July to oppose the changes and may even mount a legal challenge against the government if its education bill is passed.

Yannis Mylopoulos, rector of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, said the bill was an "inexplicable attack aimed at lowering the prestige" of Greek universities.

"It violates Article 16 of the Constitution, which states that universities are state institutions and have their own governing bodies, and it opens the way for the privatisation of higher education," he said.

Regarding a possible strike, the rectors said that the government should "not expect us to put universities in a state of inaction" and argued that any response would be "on behalf of the society which will be convinced of the rightness of our position".

'Eternal students' face the end

Under the proposed new system, undergraduate degrees will be cut from four or five years to three years for most non-scientific subjects, with a "preparatory" first year, offering a US-style generalised education before entry into a faculty.

Vice-chancellors will be elected by UK-style academic senates, and students will lose their voting rights on ruling bodies.

Efforts will also be made to eliminate the nepotism rife in many universities, while legislation will address the vast numbers of "eternal students" - those who have in effect dropped out but remain on the books of universities. About 94,000 undergraduates who enrolled 10 years ago are still classed as students, official figures show.

Christina Adamou, lecturer in film studies at Aristotle University, called the proposed changes unworkable and said they would trigger strikes. "They are importing a mash-up of processes from European countries and the US, which will not work," she said.

"For instance, they want to abolish lectureships and give staff contracts that can be renewed for a maximum of five years.

"These contracts and underfunding of research will lead to a brain drain of talent."

However, Vangelis Tsiligiris, principal of MBS College in Crete, which is affiliated with Nottingham Trent University, and a researcher in cross-border education, believed reforms were urgently needed.

"There were 580,000 students registered in 40 higher education institutions last year, but only 243,000 appeared in a new IT system used to order books," he said.

"Only half of students signed up are actually studying, but publishing houses received funding for all of them.

"Just introducing this monitoring will save a huge amount of money."

Rationality comes a-calling

Mr Tsiligiris said the new legal framework would bring about the "long-anticipated rationalisation of the whole public higher education sector" and make universities more accountable, too.

"It is widely accepted that many professors are very well paid but do not do any teaching. This has been often criticised, but now it is time to change."

He said the proposals represented "the introduction of accountability and quality assurance to bring Greece into line with other European countries".

Although funding would be reduced, he argued that much could be done to make public institutions more efficient, so job cuts could be kept to a minimum.

The changes follow tough times for Greek academics, whose take-home pay was cut by 10 per cent in March and will fall by at least 10 per cent under the austerity regime imposed by the European Union.

Direct funding of universities was also reduced by 20 per cent last year and is expected to decline further as the country battles to avoid economic meltdown.

However, Mr Tsiligiris insisted that fears raised by unions that the budget cuts could lead to the eventual introduction of tuition fees for students were unfounded.

"Our education minister has said this will not change.

"Our Constitution states that the state is the only provider of higher education, and the opportunity to change the Constitution only comes around every seven years.

"It's not on the agenda and I don't think we'll see any change here."

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