Spartan helotry

Austerity has brought tragedy to Greece and the UK. Martin McQuillan reflects on the narrative and ideology of ‘fiscal discipline’ and what it means for both nations and their academies

January 3, 2013

Source: Getty

The graffiti around the city of Thessaloniki have taken on a more direct tone of late. Amid the usual declarations for gangs, lovers and rival football teams, there is a strong strain of political aphorism. In the middle of Platia Dikastirion, the public square a few blocks from my hotel, a message written in English reads: “Refugees Welcome, Tourists Fuck Off”. Austerity-crippled Greece may have more reason than most to encourage the tourist trade, but the sentiment speaks of exasperation with the international community after the imposition of consecutive rounds of painful “fiscal discipline”: those who have nothing, like us, are welcome; those who bring their wealth to play by the Aegean Sea are not. The academic visitor is not quite a tourist or a refugee: they have something to bring other than holiday euros, but equally they have somewhere to return to. I am here for a symposium on narrative. Stories interest me and so does the state of universities. I am compelled to ask, then, what is the story of Greek universities during these most austere of times?

In August 2011, at the height of the tourist season, the Hellenic Parliament passed with an overwhelming majority a higher education reform bill, Law 4009. For some, the bill heralded a brave new dawn of efficiency, accountability and competitiveness long overdue in an underperforming sector. For others, it represented a violation of the Greek Constitution and the dismantling of hard-won rights as the first step towards the privatisation of the country’s 40 universities and technical institutes. The provisions of the bill include: the shortening of undergraduate degrees from four or five years to three; the appointment rather than the election of rectors; the reduction of student voting influence over university governance; curriculum oversight of academic departments by faculties; more powers for the Hellenic Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education; the linking of funding to institutional performance; and the incentivisation of private donations, sponsorship and the hiring of facilities. The bill also abolishes the right to asylum on university campuses - something enjoyed since 1982, when memories of the generals’ rule of the country from 1967 to 1974 were still raw, but which by making campuses police-free zones had enabled petty crime and rough sleeping in some places. In recent years campuses served as refuges when street protests gave way to violent clashes with the police.

The bill is also said to address the disparity between healthy participation and anaemic graduation rates in the country. According to Universitas 21, a global network of research universities, Greece, along with South Korea, Finland and the US, has one of the highest higher education participation rates in the world. However, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development statistics reveal that the country also has one of the lowest rates of graduation and graduate employability in the European Union.

The bill also targets that bete noire of austerity, “waste”: Greek students receive free textbooks and free lunches. However, the government is at pains to stress that privatisation is not on the agenda.

If all this sounds to British ears like a mild dose of real-world corporatisation, it is worth pausing to reflect that despite all the economic problems Greece has - it recently received another €40 billion (£32 billion)tranche from the EU and the International Monetary Fund as its de facto structured default gathers apace - no one here is suggesting that the cost of higher education should be transferred from the state to the student. No one is talking about the introduction of tuition fees for Greek undergraduates, which normally would be page one of the neoliberal playbook.

Nevertheless, there is a familiar story unfolding here. Austerity begins with a demand to cut back on public spending. It follows that the state must give up responsibility for some things it has previously provided. Given all the demands on an ever-shrinking public purse, some statutory (pensions and care for the elderly), some conventional (the military, the Olympics), the nation will need to prioritise its commitments. Starting with the most inessential first and working down the list, cuts are enacted and parts of the public realm are given over to the private sector.

In the UK, universities lost their place in the queue for the public purse long ago when vice-chancellors first agreed to tuition fees as a way of funding higher education. Despite the safeguard of requiring a parliamentary vote to raise the cap on fees, there has been a slow but inexorable progression, from £1,000 “top-up fees” in 1998 to sector-wide £9,000 charges today, which has flipped the balance of public-private financing in UK higher education to 30:70 in favour of “graduate contributions”. While the coalition’s troubled vote on fees in December 2010 brought students out on the streets and wreaked lasting political damage on the Liberal Democrats, the rise was in reality achieved through incremental progression, by which the once politically impossible became the politically inevitable. English universities have been like the allegorical frog that is boiled alive without knowing it as the temperature of the water is raised a few degrees at a time.

Austerity was the primary justification given during the vote on tripling tuition fees. Vince Cable, the business secretary, sombrely pronounced that the UK didn’t want to “end up like Greece”. However, as an indication of the bad faith behind such pronouncements, it is worth considering that the bill for higher education in the UK is expected to be £4.2 billion in 2014-15, while the total cost of the quantitative easing programme to date has been £375 billion. Since student finance is also a form of government debt (for a fraction of the QE outlay so far), why wasn’t the cost of the student loan book folded into the scheme?

Greece, of course, cannot do what the UK has done: as a member of the eurozone it cannot devalue its currency, or quantitatively ease or inflate away its national debt. Instead, the Greeks, like the Irish, have had to issue ever-stricter austerity budgets, cutting public sector salaries and pensions while raising taxes.

The take-home pay of Greek academics has been cut by 25 per cent in the past four years, with further cuts expected. They consider themselves relatively fortunate. Walking back to the hotel after the first day of the conference, I witness an evening march by workers who have not been paid for 16 months (at which stage they cannot meaningfully be described as “workers” any more). Direct funding to universities has been cut by 20 per cent and is expected to be cut further; with a freeze on hiring at most institutions, staff workloads are expanding as the workforce shrinks. The narrative symposium is being held at the Thessaloniki Museum of Byzantine Culture because the cleaners at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki are on strike and rubbish is piling up all over campus. In this sense, academic visitors retain a tourist-like status: we are to be spared the sight of bin bags and protest. The cleaners are in dispute over the transfer of their contracts to a private company. Strikes have become habitual: I am told an informal agreement has been reached that they will be reserved for Wednesday afternoons in an attempt to keep public institutions functional.

The calculation of the Greek government is somewhere between the shock doctrine and the frog. The reforms all come at once and are extensive, but they also open the door to the long road of managerialism and self-corporatisation. Why have protests in the street over directly imposed reforms when appointed managers will willingly enact reforms gradually in time? Law 4009 has met with resistance from Greece’s students and rectors, some of whom have publicly pronounced their refusal to implement it. This should also give British readers pause for thought. Yiannis Mylopoulos, the rector of Aristotle, was one of the last to hold out against implementation, but folded when the government threatened to withdraw all state funding from his university.

Only Athens Polytechnic, it is said, remains non-compliant. The institution, Greece’s premier school for mathematics and engineering, occupies a special place in the imagination of Greek higher education and politics. It is where, at 3am on 17 November 1973, the generals sent in a tank to break a student occupation. Some 30 people died that night, sparking a chain of events that would eventually lead to the fall of the military junta and the restoration of democracy in July the following year. The date is observed as a national holiday for all Greek educational establishments: wreaths are laid and the day ends with a march from the polytechnic to the American Embassy in Athens.

If it is hard enough to imagine English vice-chancellors standing together to oppose government reforms, it is harder still to imagine Imperial College London or the London School of Economics wanting even to recall the history of their students’ protests against the Vietnam War or Rhodesia. It is for these hard-wired, historical reasons that the Greek government wants to attenuate the student voice in university governance but at the same time will not (yet) contemplate tuition fees. What is on offer is a slow-burn management approach that opens the door to a long corridor of reform through assurance and audit, as the legacy of student activism recedes into history.

Austerity should not target the university: on the contrary, when the economy is shrinking, education and training should be national priorities. In practice, it would seem that austerity abhors only the public university. As the plight of the University of California system demonstrates, the public university is always near the top of the austerity regime’s list of the non-essential, with a public commitment to the arts and humanities prominent among the items to be cut.

Lord Browne of Madingley’s identification of the arts, humanities and social sciences as “non-priority subjects” echoes Ronald Reagan’s pronouncement, during a presidential campaign speech while governor of California, that the Golden State had no interest in “subsidising intellectual curiosity”. The present governor of Florida, Rick Scott, has said that the state has enough anthropologists and has increased fees for arts and humanities degrees at Florida State University to discourage take-up and incentivise students to opt for science programmes. James Dyson, the British industrial designer, has called for special treatment and fee waivers for engineers in England, and recently claimed that too many people are going to university to study “French lesbian poetry”. Such sectarianism seems thankfully absent in Greece. When I express admiration for the ability of my host, Effie Yiannopoulo, to fund a humanities symposium at this time, she replies wryly: “We have had three governments in three years - no one has been around long enough to realise there was still money in the humanities pot.”

While the Greek Constitution declares the state to be the only legitimate provider of higher education, the country has a growing private market, much of it the result of British universities franchising degrees for private colleges. Austerity is at ease with the private provider. Who could argue against thrifty students and free enterprise? The sting comes when private institutions repatriate profits derived from publicly funded loans for tuition fees. This is the mess that the Obama administration is trying to unpick in the US; this is the future that the UK government is actively encouraging.

The University of Law is the first for-profit, private equity-backed university in the UK, but any capitalist worth his or her salt knows how to extract income from a corporate structure with or without the “not-for-profit” nomenclature that, for example, the New College of the Humanities avows. Greece is not the basket case on this one.

In the past, healthy numbers of Greek students came to study in the UK as demand for higher education significantly outstripped the supply afforded by the country’s 40 public institutions. It would seem that this traffic is likely to grind to a halt in the face of £9,000 fees for home and EU students and will be redirected towards less expensive, American-run private universities in Eastern Europe.

The regimes of austerity have meant different things in the Greek and UK academies. While Greece holds on, for now, to direct funding and a belief in the public university, its higher education budget is in sharp decline. It is not certain that the imported cult of managerialism will reverse that. The financing of universities in England is a piece of legerdemain by which government borrowing is redescribed as private debt, the sort of off-book accounting for which the Conservatives in opposition criticised Gordon Brown. Unlike the Greek rectors, Universities UK has said little in public about this. It is its belief that over a period in which public spending will decline, the new finance arrangements will actually put more money into English universities (which is not something it wants to draw to the attention of the Treasury). However, UUK has not calculated for the decline of undergraduate student numbers in the face of £9,000 fees. The next round of Universities and Colleges Admissions Service figures this month will severely test these assumptions.

“Crisis” and “critic” are both derived from the same Greek root, krinein, “to judge”. When the story of the global financial crisis comes to be written, how shall we judge the dramatis personae? The politicians, bankers and plutocrats will all survive, no doubt, but they have brought tragedy to Greece. Like Oedipus, they might say that they did not know what they were doing. The crime of Oedipus may have been committed in ignorance, but he still gouged his own eyes out when he realised what he had done. Who will be the brave, suicidal Antigone who defies the state for the sake of an ethical duty they hold dearer than compliance with the sovereign’s wishes? After she is gone and all is lost, King Creon laments his own “mistakes made by a foolish mind…Oh the profanity of what I planned.”

What would Aristotle make of it all? Of narrative, he famously noted that all plots have a beginning, middle and end. Previously we have understood a “crisis” to be something that will pass when the normal order of things is restored. The trauma of the present crisis is the feeling that the worst is yet to come, for the UK, for Greece and for our universities. There is no end in sight.

I am told that when it is clear you can stand at the harbour in Thessaloniki and see all the way to Mount Olympus. Today I cannot see beyond the hazy smog.

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