The New “University Police” Shows Greece’s Authoritarian Turn

After the bloody suppression of the Polytechnic students’ uprising in 1973, universities became a symbol of Greek democracy — and for decades, police were banned from even entering campuses. But on Thursday, parliament voted to create a special police force to patrol universities, as the right-wing government mounts a troubling crackdown on supposedly “dangerous” student groups.

Students in Athens, Greece, protest the formation of university police on campus in February 2021. (Moira Lavelle)

Meliana Makari has been to every demonstration these last five weeks. Along with thousands of students across Greece, Makari, eighteen, a student of electrical and computer engineering at the National Technical University of Athens, hoped to prevent the passing of a bill overhauling Greece’s public education system. “The law will change the role of the university in our society,” said Makari after the February 11 protest. “The university right now functions as a free and public social and political space — and in my opinion, this new law will change that for good.”

Yet despite protests, on Thursday, the Greek parliament passed the new education law. Among other things, the measures promoted by the right-wing New Democracy government will create a special police force for Greek universities, change the system of student admissions, and curtail their time at university. Students argue that the law is a crackdown on freedom of speech and political organizing.

“Until now, the universities were public space — everyone could get in, everyone could attend classes even without actually being a student, everyone could also attend the political assemblies and create political movements inside the university,” said Makari.

The new law promoted by the right-wing government creates a more stringent admission threshold and introduces time limits for how long students can study, with some exceptions for working students and those who face health problems. Previously, students could study without restriction.

Students argue that the new limit does not recognize the reality of those who need to take up another job in order to get them through university. “A huge part of the youth will be thrown out of higher education,” said Victoria Plega, twenty, a student at the Athens University of Economics and Business. “Limits and expulsions are being established . . . at a time when many students are forced to work to complete their studies.”

Opposition parties have also criticized the stricter admission standards as a boon to private universities’ coffers: “You also bring a bill to complete a very important gift to the private interests of the colleges,” Syriza leader and former prime minister Alexis Tsipras argued in parliament, “leaving more than 24,000 students each year outside the university, in order to increase their customer base.”

Yet the main objection is the law’s provision of an unarmed 1,030-person police force that can discipline and arrest students suspected of involvement in criminal activity.

Coming four decades after police were removed from campuses, the creation of such a force represents a massive authoritarian shift in Greek society.

Policing Students

Until August 2019, it had been all but illegal for Greek police to enter universities. For almost forty years, a university asylum law forbade police from stepping foot onto campus without explicit permission from the student body and the dean. The law was created to protect student protest and political organizing, in memory of the 1973 Athens Polytechnic uprising, when Greek students demonstrated against the military junta that then ruled the country.

During the three-day uprising in November 1973, students occupied the Polytechnic University of Athens in protest of proposed changes to the education system. The occupation soon became a symbol of revolt against the dictatorship, and thousands of people flooded the streets of Athens in solidarity. The protest infamously ended with the military sending tanks down the city’s main highways, with one crashing through the gates of the Polytechnic. Dozens of people were killed, and hundreds were beaten or arrested by police.

The Polytechnic uprising is broadly understood in Greece as the beginning of the end of the dictatorship, and the onset of the return to democracy. The crushed Polytechnic gates remain as a memorial inside the campus, and still today, November 17 is a national school holiday. When it was first passed into law in 1982, the asylum law barring police from campus was accepted as an obvious and necessary protection for student organizing.

Students in Athens, Greece, protest the formation of university police on campus in February 2021. (Moira Lavelle)

Many students cite the legacy of the Polytechnic in their arguments against the new law. “In the past, the universities were a starting point for resistance, such as in the Polytechnic and other actions,” said Yiannis Koyios, twenty-two, a student at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens at Wednesday’s demonstration. “Whenever the government tried to change laws, the universities were a starting point for the reaction.”

For years, many of Greece’s political movements have started in the universities — movements in solidarity with workers and migrants were often organized from university buildings or dorms. “The university has always played a big role in political movements in Greece,” said Makari.  “The student movements were key in organizing demonstrations in 2008 and during the economic crisis.”

Lawless Campuses?

But in the decades since the Polytechnic uprising, opponents have attacked the university asylum law as a cover for lawlessness and dangerous activity. Amid national protests against post-crisis austerity measures in 2011, the center-left PASOK government repealed university asylum. In 2017, Tsipras’s Syriza administration pointedly reinstated it.

When the measure was reintroduced, center-right newspapers were furious. They ran headlines such as “Universities Are Surrounded by Extremists and Traffickers” — pointing to graffiti on university buildings, or to the sale of illegal cigarettes and knockoff sneakers on campus. But there were some complaints within universities, too. In 2018, students from across Greece created a petition that garnered more than 1,400 signatures calling for “universities without violence” after a professor was beaten and threatened for making comments on anti-authoritarian graffiti. Professors argued that the frequent occupation of university buildings disrupted education.

The ruling New Democracy party particularly focused on the supposed climate of lawlessness in the universities. From 2018, it began campaigning on a law-and-order platform buttressed with promises of repealing university asylum. Indeed, this was one of the party’s first legislative actions when elected in summer 2019. New Democracy prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis argued, “We don’t want police officers in universities. We want to expel the hoodlums who police the lives of students from [the universities].”

However, in recent months, New Democracy has run a further campaign insisting that dissolving asylum was not enough — and that establishing university police is the only way for Greece to have “functioning” universities. In late January, it published a video with photos of drug dealing, broken university windows, and protests with the tagline: “Vandalism, intimidation, thefts, trafficking, beatings, illegal trade, depreciation. We agree, these are not the universities we want. They are a place of creation, freedom, and knowledge, not delinquency and lawlessness.”

As the law was discussed in parliament on Thursday, Mitsotakis stated that it would solve problems of “delinquency” and establish the universities as a place for education and the exchange of ideas. For him, this is not a matter of “the police entering the schools” but of “democracy entering.”

But the student movement is not so sure. “This is not a measure that is happening to ensure the security of students; the police will be there to repress the political movements that have flourished inside the university,” said Makari. “For me, this is proven by the historic role of the police in Greek society and by the police’s recent actions, including today.” At student demonstrations in Athens and Thessaloniki on Wednesday, police beat protestors and arrested dozens. Videos circulated online of police chasing students with batons and throwing them to the pavement. Journalists’ unions, leftist politicians, and protesters have all accused the police of excessive force during the demonstrations.

Evelina Kontonasiou, nineteen, a pharmaceutics student at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, worries that the law will impact her studies and her political activism. “I think I will see the university as a space of colonialism and political oppression,” she said. “I will come and study anxiously.” For her, the risk is that students won’t be able to cope with this climate — for “there will be cops in our heads at all times.”