domingo, junho 18, 2006

Greek Students Movement: Some Background Info on the Struggle in the Universities of Greece

Certain clauses in the Greek Constitution (stating, among others, that education has to be public and free for all and that no police forces are allowed to enter university grounds) have made the enforcement of a neo-liberal agenda to the country's higher education institutions particularly difficult.

However, the [Greek] Conservative Government is now attempting to push forward crucial changes in the functioning and role of the country's Higher Education institutions. A so-called "committee of experts", appointed by the government itself, has released a list of proposed changes, which include:

- De-registration of students after (X times 1,5) years, where X is the minimum number of years required for completion of their course (now unlimited);

- Limiting the number of times allowed to sit for a module to four (now unlimited);

- Allowing for easier police access to university grounds, the long-term aim being the complete erasure of campus sanction (to date, police are not allowed to enter university property unless specifically instructed to do so by the university's "asylum committee", with the latter's decision-making process being rather complex);

- To end the free distribution of academic books to students (since the Constitution states education has to be free for all, [to date,] universities have to provide required readings to their students free of charge);

- To end student transfers (to date, students meeting certain economic, social and/or health criteria can apply for a transfer to the academic department closest to their area of residence);

- To introduce managerial positions in the universities (to date, all administrative decisions fall under the juridistiction of academic staff).

The above have been incorporated into a law proposal which, according to media reports, will be brought forward by the government and the Education Ministry in July. Another crucial point of the proposed law includes the editing of Article 16 of the Constitution (currently stating that all education should be public and free for all) in order to allow for the foundation of Private Universities in the country.


During the last 3 weeks there is quite some unrest in Greek universities. At the moment more than 180 university departments are occupied by the students. On Thursday 25/5 8.000 students demonstrated in a big protest march in the center of Athens. This unrest is triggered by the reform of higher education proposed by the Ministry of Education.

The proposed reform of Greek higher education has 3 pillars:

1. The change in the legislation that regulates university education. This change serves the purpose of transforming the universities into profit-making institutions. The reformed universities will also be more authoritarian for students. According to the proposed changes every student will have the right to fail only up to 2 times in every course and to finish his studies within n+2 years of studying (until now it's unrestricted). Managing directors and financial managers will take over the administration of universities. Free supplying of compulsory course books will be abolished, social assistance to poor students will be cut down and the students participation in the representative boards of the university will be restricted. A major consequence of this will be that young people from the low-income class will be practically excluded from university education. Moreover, the institution of "University Asylum" (the institution that establishes the right of unrestricted expression and exchange of political views and actions within the borders of the university campuses, including the restriction of police access to the Universities) will be practically abolished.

2. The revision of article 16 of the Greek Constitution that establishes the right of every citizen for free, public education. Therefore, private commercial universities will be established and private vocational training institutions will be officially recognized by the state.

3. The revitalization of previous legislation regarding ICTS and university evaluation credits in order to introduce the model of "life-learning". The introduction of ICTS as well as the recognition of the 3-year bachelors from abroad will abolish the universal character of university degrees (and the relevant universal employment qualifications). In this way, every graduate will have his own "individualized" degree without any negotiable power in the labour market.

To give you an idea of the current situation in Greek higher education: the entry into Universities is done by nation-wide exams in 8 common compulsory subjects (and for some departments in a few choice subjects). There are no time or exam restrictions in studying. Study programs last 4 or 5 years. Students are allowed to pass their courses in whatever year they want and to study for as many years as they want. In practice, however, it's not their fault when they delay to graduate as failure rates in many exams can reach 80%. Higher education is free of charge. Students pay no study fees and they enjoy free supply of compulsory course books. Again, in practice the situation is different. As Greek students get no kind of "studiefinanciering" they have to finance themselves housing and living expenses (that have particularly increased the last years) as well as supplementary course material (as the free course books are usually of low quality in many cases). There is no such thing as ICTS or study credits; students have just to pass a number of compulsory and choice courses. Degrees are "universally equivalent" in the sense that every graduate gets a degree in Mathematics/Medicine/Language, etc, with his general grade on it. Nothing more is mentioned on the degree and nothing more is valid in the labour market. Officially, all graduates from the same department have the same qualifications for the labour market, which is quite rigid. In practice, however, the unemployment rates are very high and young people have many difficulties in finding even a badly paid job. Moreover, in Greece there are hardly any high-paid jobs.

Many governments have attempted to reform the educational system by incorporating the EU directives. All attempts have failed due to the strong opposition of the students movement. Occupations of Universities and huge demonstrations cancelled all government political efforts to reform higher education in 1991, 1992, 1995, 1998 and 2001. In the Greek Universities, there is a long tradition of the students movement. Though less than in the 70s and 80s, a large number of students is interested in politics. There are organized students elections every year and the participation rates reach 70-80%. There is one students union in every department and assemblies are held a few times every year. Thus, a picture of hundreds of students in a hall debating on local and political issues is not uncommon for Greece. Occupations of universities and protest marches of thousands of students are the most usual actions for the students movement. Furthermore, since the early 90s the horizontal organizing of the movement has become rather dominant. Despite the fact the groups and organizations of the radical left are powerful in the movement, the assemblies and the open coordination meetings "calls the shots" in the movement. And these groups and organizations of the radical left have strongly supported this development and they take credit for it.

This month, the government launched a campaign in order to promote the reform in higher education. Thus, specialized committees of "independent experts" published reports about the need for a reform in higher education. These reports, all of a sudden, coincide remarkably with the ideas of the Ministry of Education. As a reaction to this, student assemblies in most of the universities were called and occupations of most of the Greek universities were decided. The protest march of last Thursday was the second big students demonstration in Athens. During the first one, about 10 days ago, clashes between the demonstrators and the riot police broke out. Further demos took place in several other Greek cities. After the last protest march about 1.000 students from all over the country met in a plenary coordination meeting in Athens and called for a continuation of the actions against the government policy.

Contrary to the way the official workers trade unions handle the movement, the students do not get into any kind of bargaining or negotiations with the ministry of education. They demand the full withdrawal of all governmental proposals for higher education. They demand free public education for all young people. They also demand the government to secure the universal character of the degrees and take action to reduce unemployment for young people.

It is important to stress that both the conservative government (party of "New Democracy") and the opposition party of the social-democrats (PASOK) support the proposed reforms. The actions of the students are not even supported by the Communist Party, which gets around 14% in the students elections. The Communist Party is in favor of less radical actions (it's against occupations of universities and calls separate demos from the rest of the students). Politically-wise the driving force of the movement is the grass-roots radical left groups (EAAK). However, there is such unrest among the students that even in departments where there is no radical left group (or it exists but it's powerless) the student assemblies vote in favor of the actions against the government.



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