Amid Protests, Greece Enacts Bill Meant to Make Universities More Competitive

Louisa Gouliamaki, Agence France-Presse, Getty Images

Students scuffle with riot police near the Greek Parliament in Athens on Wednesday during a protest against changes in higher education approved on the same day by lawmakers.
August 24, 2011

The Greek Parliament on Wednesday passed by an overwhelming majority a sweeping and controversial bill that seeks to reform a university sector that is widely regarded as among the most dysfunctional and underperforming in Europe.

Many university rectors and students have vociferously opposed key provisions of the bill, and hundreds of students protested its overall passage outside the Parliament building in Athens, even as legislators continued to debate and vote on individual articles and amendments well into the evening.

All of Greece's 24 universities and 16 technical institutes are public, and various attempts at transforming the country's higher-education system over the years have run into strong opposition. Anything seen as a step toward privatization in the higher-education sector has been especially controversial, even when, as is now the case, the government insists it has no intention of opening the door to privatization.

This latest effort comes at a time when the country is under international pressure to curb public spending and reduce its huge deficit. Yannos Mitsos, an adviser to the higher-education minister, Anna Diamantopoulou, said that the reforms were part of the government's election platform, and not a response to the current economic crisis. But he added that their aims, of enhancing university self-governance and creating stronger, more accountable institutions that will be more competitive internationally, dovetail with the government's goals in the current economic crisis.

"Many of these measures are related to improving efficiency, accountability, effectiveness, and transparency," he said.

Opponents argue that the changes will threaten rather than enhance institutions' independence.

Despite that resistance, however, there is wide international consensus on the need for higher-education reform in Greece. Andreas Schleicher, an education expert at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development who led the work on the organization's recent country report on Greece, is unsparing in his assessment. "This has been a very unhealthy system that has actually delivered very poor-quality education," he said. Anyone who could afford to leave would study abroad, he said, with Greece sending a greater proportion of its young people abroad for a university education than did any other European country.

"What's a pity is that society in Greece values education more than in other countries," he observed. "There is really high demand for education, parents value education, and students study really hard. But the strong demand isn't met by any kind of adequate supply."

A Fresh Look at Governance

The Greek system has been hampered not so much by a lack of money but by fundamental issues having to do with organization and governance, says Mr. Schleicher. "There is enormous institutional fragmentation," he said. "Some courses are swamped and others are empty, and resource allocation doesn't match actual participation."

Although the overhaul covers a range of issues, the most heated public debate centered on proposed changes to university governance, including the way university leaders are selected. Panos Tsakloglou, a professor in the department of international and European economic studies at the Athens University of Economics and Business, called the current process, in which rectors are elected from within a university community, "really unique."

The process gives tremendous influence to students, who wield as much up to 40 percent of the votes, on average, Mr. Tsakloglou said. The changes strip students of that power, although they will retain a seat on newly created university councils that will oversee the selection process. And, for the first time, there will be international calls for candidates when leadership positions open up.

Another change, which Mr. Tsakloglou said was much needed, will give greater authority to university faculties, rather than to their subsidiary departments, to design and oversee curricula. Under the current system, he said, individual departments are so powerful that there is considerable wasting of resources, as similar courses are often offered in different departments.

The changes also include a measure that will for the first time link university financing to performance. Greece's national quality-assurance agency will take over many of the functions that the ministry has overseen directly, and will be given new responsibilities, including allocating financing. New criteria that will be taken into account could include metrics such as how well an institution's graduates fare on the job market.

New rules designed to create incentives for sponsorships and donations, as well as the independent use of university property, will also go into effect, allowing the adoption of such previously unknown practices as endowed chairs.

Fears of Privatization

The most strenuous opposition to the changes has come from several rectors and many students who have warned that measures such as allowing sponsorships pave the way for privatization to eventually take hold in Greek higher education. Students have said that new rules limiting the amount of time they spend getting their degrees will eventually result in undergraduate tuition.

Mr. Mitsos, the adviser to the higher-education minister, is dismissive of these concerns. "We find this very often, that whenever we try to change anything and make it a bit more energetic and adaptable, they always say it is privatization," he says. He emphasizes that the constitution bars the creation of private universities and that "there can be no privatization; there can be no fees for undergraduate courses."

"There is no question whatsoever of privatization," he says definitively.

Mr. Tsakloglou says that much of the opposition from rectors is simply because "they are products of the current system, and they are vehemently opposing any kind of change to the rules that brought them into power."

Whatever their motivation, opponents have vowed to continue their campaign, despite the bill's passage. According to Mr. Tsakloglou, the protests that materialized after the bill's passage on Wednesday were small, and reaction has been rather muted, despite the heightened tensions that had characterized the run-up to the bill's presentation in Parliament. But universities are not yet in session, and protests could heat up beginning next month, when students will start arriving on campuses for a new academic year.

Yannis Mylopoulos, rector of Greece's largest university, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and one of the most outspoken opponents of the transformation, has warned in a letter to the higher-education minister that the measures cannot take effect without the cooperation of institutions and that strikes could disrupt universities once the academic year begins.

The reform bill has abolished the asylum provision that prevented police officers from entering campuses without the express permission of a panel consisting of administrators, faculty, and student representatives. As a result of that provision, universities have often become refuges for rioters and protesters when things turn violent. How strikes and protests will play out in the absence of the asylum provision is difficult to predict.

Mr. Schleicher, of the OECD, believes the threat from some university rectors that they will not carry out the new measures is worth heeding. "The issue in Greece has always been implementation," he said, adding that "the design of past reforms has not been bad." But the strong external economic pressures the country is now facing could help spur universities to adopt the changes he said. "There's a real reform dynamic now" in Greece, he said. "I think this is the best opportunity for real reform for Greece in at least the 15 years that I have been working with them."


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