Freeing Education From the Market

Austerity measures have radically restructured the Greek education system — and the Syriza government is only making matters worse.

A protester burns a Syriza party flag in front of the Greek Parliament during a rally against new austerity measures on May 18, 2017 in Athens, Greece. Milos Bicanski / Getty Images

Greece has suffered more than any European country since the 2007–8 global financial crisis. The governments that have held power between 2010 and 2018 have enacted several rounds of tax increases, spending cuts, and reforms. Austerity measures have triggered both local riots and nationwide protests.

The uncertainty and economic decline that has plagued Greece has affected all spheres of society, but education has been particularly hard hit. Public spending has shrunk by 40 percent, and more than one hundred schools, as well as a number of university departments, have closed.

Many Greek youth decide not to study at all or to pursue higher education abroad — more than 427,000 have emigrated since 2008.

The state of Greek higher education sheds light on the fundamental breakdown of accountability between the political elite and ordinary people.

Demands from Below (1974–1990)

The fall of the Greek military junta in 1974 heralded the end of a repressive cycle that began with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1946. From the end of that conflict in 1949 to the Generals’ Coup in 1967, Greece was a democracy, but one rife with exclusion and serious limitations on civil liberties.

The end of dictatorship, then, was tied to calls for a more substantive democracy. This process, called metapolitefsi or regime change, triggered an intense radicalization among citizens, and the democratization of the state — including its peripheral institutions — emerged as a primary demand.

Τhe student movement played an important role in this process. In fact, the turning point for the military junta came in November 1973, when students in the Law School and the National Polytechnic School in Athens rose up. In other words, metapolitefsi was founded at least partially on the student movement. The youth members of the left parties that engaged in this transition became politically and culturally dominant within universities, capitalizing on the role they played in the struggle against the military dictatorship and, more generally, in  political radicalization.

In 1978, the right-wing government of Konstantinos Karamanlis attempted to pass Bill 815, which Greek professors, under pressure from students, declared unconstitutional. The law would have weakened the authority of academic chairs and convert junior academics into employees of academic departments rather than of the individual chair-holders.

The junior staff rejected the proposal because it classified them as a separate personnel category rather than placing them on the professorial ladder. These faculty members joined students on a hundred-day strike in the spring of 1979, and occupations of university buildings spread throughout the country. The Karamanlis government finally withdrew its proposed legislation in the wake of a massive university occupation that winter. University officials were asked to suggest alternative reforms, but the ensuing “Plan of the Rectors” did not fare well either. Parliament ultimately decided not to consider the “Plan of Rectors” because of impending elections.

These tensions were finally resolved in favor of the protesters when the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) secured its landslide victory in October 1981. The government enacted Law 1268, which abolished the chair system and handed responsibility for academic and administrative matters over to newly formed departments. Collective assemblies would be the main governing bodies that included all faculty members as well as student representatives. Further, the new legislation stipulated extensive faculty and student participation in the elections of rectors, deans, and department heads.

Most importantly, Law 1268 attempted to implement the basic principles of the metapolitefsi’s constitution concerning higher education. It strengthened academic freedom, granted all citizens the right to a free and public university education, and obligated the state to fund these institutions. These principles, codified in Article 16 of the Greek constitution, remain in place, despite multiple attempts to alter them.

Demands from Above (1990–2008)

Neoliberalism arrived in Greece rather late, when, in 1990, New Democracy (ND) took power. But in reality the stage for this takeover was set immediately after PASOK secured its second consecutive electoral victory over ND in 1985.

Following ND’s defeat, the newly elected party leader Konstantinos Mitsotakis told party members that they could only win the next elections if they convinced voters that they had transformed into a modern European party with a neoliberal economic and political agenda. Two years later, ND unveiled a new economic platform, built around the European Community’s objectives.

When Mitsotakis formed a government in 1990, he launched an ambitious set of reforms that included extensive privatization, a significant degree of market liberalization, and cuts in subsidies to ailing companies, agricultural cooperatives, and pension funds. Claiming that these policies would reform Greece’s clientelistic nature, his agenda ended the era of state interventionism that PASOK had overseen during their decade in power.

But when PASOK returned to power in 1993, nothing changed. In fact, the social democrats ushered in a second wave of neoliberal reform. Their new leader Kostas Simitis and the “modernizers” around him believed that Greece needed more privatizations before it could participate in the process of European integration as an equal partner.

Successive governments tried to shape universities along neoliberal lines throughout this period, all designed to eradicate the democratic achievements of Law 1268/1982. In 1992, Georgios Souflias, Mitsotakis’s education minister, attempted to introduce evaluation processes, strict provisions against university occupation, centralized academic administration, a reduction in students’ participation in university governance, and cutting down time to degree. Due to widespread opposition from the academic community very few of these proposals eventually materialized.

Fourteen years later, another ND government tried to implement more decisive legislation. Greece had joined the Bologna Process at its inception in 1999, and Education Minister Marietta Giannakou’s proposed changes to the university system fit into this wider European context. The reforms also came in the context of a broader set of reactionary policies that proposed to abolish the eight-hour workday and privatize more state services, including social security.

In March 2006, Giannakou announced that she would put forward a bill concerning tertiary education and pursue a constitutional amendment that would allow the establishment of private universities, implementing the conditions imposed by the Bologna Convention.

A dynamic wave of student struggle began in response, and, by the end of May, almost all Greek universities were occupied. The left-wing Hellenic Federation of University Professors Association (POSDEP) joined forces with the student movement.

On June 1, lecturers launched an indefinite strike against the middle-ground solutions the government proposed, and students gathered to protest outside the education ministry. Two days later, students organized sit-ins at nearly four hundred university departments and sixty technical colleges nationwide. Τhe following week, twenty thousand students participated in a march in the center of Athens. The police fiercely repressed the demonstration.

By mid-October, another movement had emerged, this time among secondary school students and teachers. They occupied over a thousand high schools in opposition to Giannakou’s intention to limit the number of students with access to higher education.

PASOK’s leadership had initially agreed to vote for ND’s constitutional amendment. Their support would be crucial because constitutional amendments require approval from 180 out of the 300 MPs to pass. With increasing pressure from below, PASOK’s leader George Papandreou brokered a deal to postpone the vote until January 2007, a move that gave the struggle room to continue. Finally, on February 2, 2007, he announced that PASOK was withdrawing its support for the amendment.

For the first time in the post-junta era, a massive mobilization effectively blocked the constitutional amendment process. Though the government eventually managed to slightly amend the legal framework, Article 16 remained in place — a massive political victory for the students and faculty.

Demands from Outside (2009–present)

The past decade differs from the previous neoliberal assault on higher education in key ways. First, efforts to restructure the university were forced by supra-national entities (the OECD and European Commission) and stipulated in Greece’s memoranda with the European Central Bank, European Union, and IMF. Second, these attempts have mostly succeeded, with catastrophic consequences for the higher education system. Most importantly, these so-called reforms show that the social contract between the political elites and the masses has been broken, and there is no longer any democratic accountability from above.

As a result of austerity policies, Greece’s economy has shrunk by nearly one-third since 2007. In 2012, 34.6 percent of people found themselves at the risk of poverty. A year later, public debt stood at 175.7 percent of GDP, and unemployment rates skyrocketed to 28.1 percent in general and 62.1 percent among the youth. The Greek welfare state collapsed due to draconian cuts to wages and pensions, massive layoffs, and the violation of labor rights, including collective bargaining.

Of course, universities could not be spared. The higher education system is just one sector suffering from aggressive neoliberal reforms. Given the loss of national sovereignty that came with the memoranda, the supervising institutions have essentially dictated policies in every sector.

In 2011, two-thirds of parliament voted in favor of the Framework Act 4009 for Higher Education, a massive neoliberal educational reform also known as the Diamantopoulou Law. This legislation challenged the high degree of autonomy and self-governance traditionally enjoyed by Greek universities by introducing changes to their management, to the structure of degrees and courses, to funding, and to accreditation and quality control. Contrary to the idea of a public and free higher education, funded by the state rather than tuition fees, this law proposed that, in the name of “autonomy,” universities seek private funding or introduce tuition fees.

Law 4009 also imposed a top-down managerial model on higher education, threatening the ideal of a democratically governed university. The newly introduced University Board consisted of professors elected from inside the institution and so-called outside experts, academics from other universities and/or representatives of professional associations and local businesses.

Austerity has also massively cut university budgets, making it difficult to pay the maintenance, equipment, and utility costs. Faculty salaries were reduced by 30–40 percent in real terms, and the appointment of over seven hundred elected faculty members was postponed until 2016. Combined with the 70 percent reduction in adjunct faculty, teaching personnel has decreased by more than 10 percent, rendering many departments inoperable. The 2010 bailout agreement also included provisions to cut public sector jobs, which includes university administrative staff. Completing day-to-day tasks has become more difficult than ever.

The austerity policies of the three governments in power between 2010 and 2015 radically changed the political landscape, launching Syriza to victory. But, since the signing of the third memorandum in August 2015, educational policy has again become subject to negotiation with Greece’s creditors.

In the first months of Syriza’s rule, the self-proclaimed left-wing party continued the educational policies of prior governments and implemented already-approved measures. But the third memorandum contained specific stipulations regarding higher education, leaving little room to make educational reforms.

The script is handed down from above, and any Greek government must try to rapidly implement the policies, all of which are designed to “rationalize” the educational system. The reforms dictated from above strengthen the university’s connection to the capitalist economy by devising new ways to serve it, creating a cheaper, more productive, and more flexible university for the few.

In August 2017, Syriza passed its first higher education bill, now known as Law 4485. This legislation holds the door open for standardization, privatization, and the commodification of knowledge in a variety of ways. It reduced state funding, which forces universities to seek alternate sources of money. It also reorganized curricula to train students for open positions, which also reinforced social stratification. The new law introduced tuition for graduate studies and shifted state responsibility to the university, its administrators, faculty, and students. Law 4485 signaled the university’s transformation from public good to private enterprise.

At this point, the question of resistance to the ongoing neoliberalization of the education system becomes central. Sadly, after Syriza’s ascent to power, the movement that propelled it to government has been absorbed by parliamentary politics. Many academics, once very vocal, were rewarded with promotions. They swiftly gave up their previous, more radical views.

These trends in higher education manifest the general retreat of social movements, which have been paralyzed by memoranda-stipulated policies that continue to be applied by the neoliberal  “left-wing” government of Syriza. It is difficult to imagine a democratic, state-funded, and free-to-all university in the context of troika-run Greece, just as it’s difficult to imagine a renewed welfare state.