Neoliberalism and Higher Education in Greece

 Panagiotis Sotiris, Vice-president of the University of the Aegean Teachers’ Union, explores the problems of Higher Education in Greece

 First of all, I would like to express my deepest feelings of solidarity to Egitim Sen regarding the recent wave of arrests. Governments all over the world want to get rid of trade union resistances and attempt to criminalize trade union action. Solidarity and struggle are our weapons! Secondly, I would like to thank the organizers of this conference for this opportunity to share with you some thoughts and experiences regarding the neoliberal attack on Higher Education in Greece and the struggles against this attack, in a particular conjuncture marked by economic crisis, austerity and the imposition of draconian cuts as part of the loan agreements with the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.[1]
Higher education in Greece has always been a highly politicized terrain. Until recently the sole responsibility of the State because of an explicit constitutional ban on private Higher Education, it has been considered one of the main forms of upwards social mobility and this can account for the social pressure to broaden access to Higher Education. Currently there are more than 75,000 posts to Universities and Technological Educational Institutes offered ever year. For the average Greek family entrance to a University Department, traditionally associated with obtaining better employment prospects, has always been a major goal. This can also explain the importance, in the public sphere, of events such as the university entrance exams or the high cost of extra tutorial courses a family is ready to bear in order to achieve entrance to a good University Department (Medical Schools, Law Schools, and Engineering Schools).
Students at the gates of the Athens Polytechnic in 1973

Students at the gates of the Athens Polytechnic in 1973

Struggle and protest has been an integral part of Greek Higher Education. The history of Greek Universities has been marked by the intervention, since the 1960s, of a highly politicized student movement,[2] which was highly esteemed because of its role in the struggle against the 1967-1974 military dictatorship (epitomized in the 1973 Occupation of the National Polytechnic School which was brutally suppressed by the military dictatorship). After the fall of the dictatorship, the student movement was a crucial aspect of a process of radicalization of Greek society, producing not only victorious movements (such as the 1979 movement of occupations that forced the government to repeal the law 815/78 – one of the few cases in the past 40 years that a law that had been passed was subsequently repealed because of protests) but also important elements of the general social and political culture. Most aspects of Greek post-1974 left-wing radicalism emerged from Universities. In the early 1980s a wave of extensive reforms – and especially the 1268 frame law introduced in 1982 – combined a modernizing, technocratic aspect with the introduction of a democratic system of extensive faculty and student participation in the administration of University students, which included high representation in University Senates and Department Assemblies and a particular weight of student vote in the election of Rectors, Deans and Department Heads.

Since the 1990s there have been successive waves of reforms of Higher Education in a more neoliberal and authoritarian direction. Of particular political but also symbolic significance has been the campaign, from 1990 onwards, from the part of the forces of capital and mainstream media, for the amendment of article 16 of Greek Constitution that explicitly states that Higher Education is the responsibility of solely the State.  Such a amendment would have been necessary in order for Private Higher Education to be fully established (private post-secondary education had been developed but it lacked the formal status of University Studies). Attacks on Higher Education have also been directed against the high degree of student participation, the gratis provision of text books, the rights of lower faculty members (lecturers and assistant professors) and the ability of the Student movement to act and organize exemplified in the so-called University Sanctuary, namely the explicit ban on the forces of order to enter University premises which has protected for many decades protesters from being harassed by the police. A central aspect of these reforms has been the attempt to ‘reform’ Higher Education according to business interests, a tendency that international capitalist organizations such as the OECD had described even in the 1980s as the answer to the ‘Crisis of the University’,[3] and which had been actively promoted by the European Economic Community. Of particular importance has been the attempt to make sure that the degree-structure and the rights – but also collective aspirations – associated with holding a university degree corresponded to the new realities of the workplace, as part of a broader offensive by the forces of capital to have a labour force more educated but with less rights, more qualified but able to accept worse working conditions, in a position to enrich their qualifications but also to easily move from one position to the other.
These attempts have been met with successive waves of mainly student unrest: in 1990-91 (with a big wave of occupations in High Schools and Universities against a series of authoritarian proposals for secondary education along with a plan for a more entrepreneurial Higher Education including introduction of private universities[4]), in 1995 (University Occupations against the abolishment of the gratis provision of university textbooks), in 1997-98 (High School and University Occupations against a new entry exam system), in 2001 (University protests against changes in the relative value of degrees), in 2006-2007 (two massive successive waves of University Occupations plus Faculty strikes against legislative changes and the amendment of article 16 of the Greek Constitution[5]), in 2008 (Mass youth protests – the ‘Greek Riots’ – after the assassination of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos by a policeman[6]), and in 2011-12 (Mass student and faculty protests against the new legislative framework in Higher Education).
European Union policies and directions have been instrumental in the neoliberal transformation of Higher Education in Greece. In the second half of the 1980s European research programs initiated the funding of research through competitive programs and pressed for linkages to industry and the turn towards marketable research. This was accelerated in the 1990s when research driven Departments or groups of professors became the leading poles in favour of neoliberal reforms and a more entrepreneurial Higher Education. A new figure of professor emerged, who was more preoccupied with this kind of entrepreneurial quest for research funds than with teaching.
However, the biggest changes have been associated with the so-called Bologna Process reforms. The Bologna process has been one of the most coordinated attempts to implement a profound change in Higher Education; both in the direction of more entrepreneurial education, but also in the direction of introducing the Anglo-Saxon model of a two-cycle Higher Education. Instead of solid first degrees offering employment prospects the pressure after the Bologna Process begun was on introducing three or four year Bachelor degrees that would be simply the basis for subsequent graduate courses, MAs, and re-training practices, as part of the general trend for ‘life-long learning’, namely the tendency for increased mobility and precariousness of labour.[7]
There have been many attempts to implement ‘Bologna process’ reforms in the 2000s in Greece: measures that led to decreased value of diplomas, increased emphasis on graduate courses, new more specialized courses and departments instead of more broad academic disciplines, introduction of quality assurance processes and accreditation mechanisms, introduction of ECTS (European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System) that attempts to standardize course according to ‘learning outcomes’ and ‘workload’. Part of the pressure came from changes in labour market. Institutional reforms such as the introduction in 1998 of a new exam that determined teachers’ hiring in primary and secondary education reduced the relative value of degrees in favour of individualized ‘performance’. Growing precariousness led youths to attempts to gather as many qualifications as possible. In the mid-2000s the theme of the ‘700 euros generation’ epitomized the situation of over-qualified and underpaid young graduates.
Many of the reforms were also politically motivated in the sense that the intervention of a mass and politicized movement was considered from the forces of capital, to be a major problem, and there had been endless references in the Press on the supposedly ‘anomic’ character of the student movement. The force of the movement was made evident in 2006-2007 when two successive waves of mass rallies and occupations of universities, along with a prolonged strike by University professors and lecturers, led to the cancellation of a process of constitutional amendment (the higher parliamentary process in Greece) which had bi-partisan support (from both PASOK and New Democracy) and included the proposal to amend article 16 of the constitution. It was also made evident in the 2008 youth rebellion, one of the most impressive sequences of protest and rioting in European country, which brought forward the explosive social conflicts accumulated at the beginning of the economic and social crisis from which we have still not exited.
The Greek debt crisis has brought profound changes in Greek Higher Education. Reforms that have been proposed during the period of the austerity packages tend to combine both the neoliberal restructuring aspect, in line with similar reforms in curricula, degree structures and university management in other countries, with an aggressive attempt to impose budget cuts as part of a broader attempt to reduce public spending. Moreover, Higher Education is facing the huge social costs of the economic crisis and austerity. Official Unemployment is at 27%, youth unemployment at 61%, recession has led to a total contraction of the economy of more than -20%, real salaries have been reduced by more than -25%, infant mortality has started to increase after 50 years of constantly decreasing, schools and hospitals have closed.[8] For Higher Education the vicious circle of debt, austerity and recession has led the following consequences:
– University budgets (that cover maintenance costs, equipment procurement, utility bills, rents, repairs etc) have been reduced by up to 70%.
– Faculty pay has been reduced by 20-30% in real terms.
– More than 700 elected faculty members wait for their appointment and some of them might have to wait more than 5 years to actually be appointed.[9]
– Adjunct Faculty has been reduced to around 1/3 of what it used to be and there is a strong chance that next year there will be no funding available for adjunct faculty, leaving hundreds of adjunct lecturers out of job and creating severe difficulties in the functioning of departments.
– No new posts are been announced since the Greek government has frozen all new posts until all already elected faculty members are appointed. Along with the reduction in temporary personnel and the increased number of pensions, there has been a cumulative reduction of total teaching personnel in Greek universities and Technical Educational Institutions of more than 10%.
– Plans by the government – as part of the draconian bail out agreements with the so called ‘Troika’(EU-IMF-ECB) – to reduce the total number of public sector employees endanger the administrative staff of Greek universities. Potential lay-offs might jeopardize the ability of Universities to perform even the simplest administrative tasks.
– The general deterioration of social conditions in Greece makes the cost of accommodation forbidding for many students. Especially in regional universities and Technical Educational Institutes many students are forced to abandon their studies or to be present only at exams because they cannot bear the cost of studying away from home. More and more students choose Schools and departments on the basis of the vicinity to their homes.
On top of that the Greek government has announced that a plan for the ‘spatial restructuring’ of Greek higher education, named “Plan Athena”, aiming at merging and / or closing tens of departments as part of a broader plan to reduce available posts in Higher Education (and costs…) by up to 30%, thus seriously curtailing the right to Higher Education. Currently they have announced the merger /closure of more than 90 departments in Universities and Technical Educational Institutes, but this is only the beginning and we are expecting more such waves in the next years.
Regarding the reforms undertaken in the 2 past years we can start by the introduction of private Higher Education in Greece. This has the aim of subsequent attempts since the 1990. However, the main institutional obstacle has been the explicit constitutional ban on private Higher Education (article 16 of the Greek constitution). In the end the solution devised was to use European Union legislation on labour mobility and qualification recognition (especially the framework of the 2005/36/EC directive on the recognition of professional qualifications[10]), in order to recognize degrees by private institutions (private colleges) that act as franchises of foreign universities. If the institution that offered to the franchise agreement to the private institution in Greece is accredited in its country of origins, then the degrees of these private colleges – franchises in Greece must have the same job opportunities as the ones offered by Greek public universities. Consequently, although their academic titles are not officially recognized they still count as legitimate qualifications. The shrinkage in public higher education and the high cost for a family to have students studying in another city creates a marker for this kind of colleges / franchises. In November 2012, as part of an emergency legislative procedure to pass measures the EU – IMF – ECB ‘Troika’ had demanded, the Greek government fully legitimized not only degrees but also MAs and PhDs offered by such colleges / franchises, the only limit being that holders of such graduate degrees cannot apply for  academic posts.
Then we have the wave of legislative reforms starting in 2011, the biggest institutional overhaul in Greek Higher Education since 1982. This was presented as a necessary ‘reform’ in order to bring Higher Education up to the standards required and part of the propaganda effort was a report by an “international advisory group”, a “committee of sages”, lamenting the supposed backwardness of Greek Higher Education.[11] It is interesting that the committee was coordinated by Linda Katehi, who as Chancellor of University of California in Davis, came under the spotlight because of aggressive police practices at the UC Davis campus.[12]
 The result of this legislative initiative was reflected in laws 4009/11 and 4076/12 which include
– A change in University Management, with the introduction of ‘University Councils’ comprised by professors elected and ‘outside members’, academic and non-academic’, including representatives of the business community. This signifies a dramatic and authoritarian turn towards a more entrepreneurial university, including the introduction of corporate management practices.[13] Until now in Greek universities there was a strong democratic tradition, itself the result of student radicalism in the years after the fall of the 1967-1974 military dictatorship, manifest in the strong student presence in all governing bodies (Senates, Department assemblies) and in the elections for Rectors, Deans and Department Heads. Now not only senates are much smaller in scope and with minimum student representation (one member only instead of one student representative per department), but also oligarchic university councils become the main centres of power within Universities. This goes along with attempts to introduce a much more entrepreneurial culture, with all the emphasis on accountability, performance, openness to the needs of business and even ability to generate income. Moreover, since Greek universities are entering a new phase, because of closures, budget cuts, and attempts to worsen working relations within academia, it is obvious that the emergence of new governing bodies and new institutions, less accountable to the academic community (as as whole, namely including students), more accountable to the business interests, is more than instrumental. It is a deep structural transformation, not simply a change in administration.
– ? change in the organization of Departments with an attempt to move from the Department as the main academic unit towards the School, in an attempt to turn departments into more like study modules, along with an increased transfer of power and decision-making processes towards Heads of Schools, thus stripping Department Assemblies from an important aspect of their functioning. The aim is to introduce much more flexible courses, to be able to shut down courses more easily and to introduce a more flexible modular conception of the degree. This goes along with a broader pan-European trend, according to which instead of solid degrees following a pattern of academic disciplines we must move towards a more flexible and individualized conception of the degree as a ‘qualifications portfolio’ that must be constantly enriched and renewed (at the expense and time of the student) with all kind of course, seminars, workplace experiences. The ‘Diploma Supplement’ introduced as part of the “Bologna Process” reforms in most European countries is a step to this direction.[14]
– Introducing changes to University Funding. The aim is for universities to generate as much income as possible in their own capacity, through tuition (in graduate studies), external funding, sponsorships, business oriented research. Universities have to incorporate all their income generating or attracting activities (research, tuition, sponsorships, property) in a University corporation that will function under private sector terms in order to increase the financial feasibility of each institution.
– Introducing not only quality assurance processes – themselves a pan-European trend – but also linking curricula and courses to accreditation process, on the basis also of economic feasibility criteria. Departments and courses will be constantly re-evaluated on the basis of their attraction to students, relation to the “needs of the economy”, “performance”. Moreover, through accreditation processes courses taught at private institutions will be equivalent to the ones provided by public universities. It is important to note that the beginning of the process of ‘spatial restructuring’ makes such evaluations crucial for the future of each department and ‘quality assurance’ will be used to legitimize such mergers / closures.
– Abolishing university sanctuary, namely the ban on services of order to enter university premises without explicit permit from university authorities. Now police are allowed to enter university buildings and there is a strong fear that will police will use this in order to crack down on student protest. In December 2012 Greek police raided the Athens University of Economic and Business and searched the rooms used by left wing and radical groups.greek teachers3
– Implementing measures that will put limits to study time, in order not only to press students to finish their studies more early, but also to indirectly penalize participation in student protest. Along with the introduction of an obligatory 13-week semester (which leaves practically no time for protest, student strikes etc) it means that students must concentrate only on studies and avoid getting more political or activist. Moreover, students who prolong their studies because they choose to work or return to their home-towns, also face the possibility of not being able to complete their studies.
Disciplining the student movement has been one of the main aims of this reform, as part of broader authoritarian turn. Dealing with a strong, radical and politicized student movement that has managed to block or delay reforms in Higher Education in the past decades, has been a major concerns for neoliberal theorists and policy planners. Doing away with the supposedly anomic character of the student movement (and social movements in general) has been a recurring theme in the current debates on policy in Greece. This disciplinary aspect of neoliberal policies also has a more strategic dimension. If one takes into consideration that an important aspect of neoliberal reforms of Higher Education has been the attempt to have a labour force more educated, more qualified and at the same time more able to accept flexible labour relations, worse working conditions, to be more individualized. Having subsequent generations of Higher Education students in Greece go through collective experiences of victorious struggle, a kind of “education” that can also be evident in current traditions of struggle and repertoires of protest all over Greek society (the way occupations of public buildings became a common feature of struggle is an example), has always been a problem for neoliberal planners. So imposing a more authoritarian regime in Higher Education institutions is exactly the attempt to implement this disciplinary aspect of

Greek university teachers protest at the Aristotelion University of Thessaloniki

Greek university teachers protest at the Aristotelion University of Thessaloniki


It is obvious from the above mentioned developments that Greek Higher Education is facing an extremely aggressive form of neoliberal restructuring, which combines both the elements evident in most such reforms in the 1990s and 2000s around the world, namely the more general trend towards a more entrepreneurial Higher Education, with the effects of the economic crisis. In a situation where Greek society is facing an extremely negative change, in the sense of prolonged austerity, new poverty, and reduced expectations, the forces of capital and their representatives attempt to impose the educational variation of the “Shock Doctrine” to Greek Higher Education.
This fight is far from over. In the past years there have been many forms of protests and struggles, even though the Greek government attempts to present an image of successful implantation of the reforms. In the 2011-12 academic year elections for the new oligarchic University Councils were successfully blocked by striking students and professors. In the 2012-2013 year the government finally managed to go through with the elections of University Councils, but only after they introduced the undemocratic method of e-voting (however, in some universities participation remained low). Even now proposed measures are far from being fully implemented and there are strong protests against the spatial restructuring of Higher Education. There are still strong traditions of collective struggles in students, struggles organized democratically since in student unions mass general Assemblies has been the main form of organizing. Unions of administrative personnel have staged important struggles against lay-offs. Many University Teachers’ Unions have staged strikes and other forms of protests in the past three years, despite the fact that POSDEP, the University Teachers’ Federation had a pro-government stance (as opposed to a much more militant stance until 2009). New forms of coordination between University Teachers’  Unions have emerged, but also between Faculty, administrative staff and students in many universities and Technical Educational Institutes.
At the beginning of spring Semester 2013, with Greek universities facing new budget cuts, wage reductions, and closures, one can expect new waves of protests. In the past decades Greek Higher Education has been at the forefront of struggle, protest and social mobilization in Greece. Student and University movements have set examples that other movements have followed. Let’s hope that University movement in Greece will be part of a broader and victorious movement to fight austerity and neoliberal reforms, get rid of the EU-IMF-ECB Troika, and build an alternative future for Greek society.

[1] On austerity in Greece see Panagiotis Sotiris, “Greece from Despair to Resistance”, The Bullet. E-bulletin No. 598., See also INE GSEE/ADEDY, Greek Economy and Employment 2012, Athens, INE GSEE/ADEDY, 2012 (in Greek). On the political economy of the Greek Crisis see C. Lapavitsas et al. Crisis in the Eurozone, London, Verso, 2012.
[2] On the history of the Greek student movements see Panagiotis Sotiris, “Youth Unrest in Greece”, In Clare Solomon and Tania Palmieri (eds.), Springtime. The New Student Rebellions. London, Verso, 2011.
[3] See OECD, Universities Under Scrutiny, Paris: OECD, 1987.
[4] Moreover, this movement was marked by the outraged caused by the murder of a high-school teacher, Nicos Temponeras, who was in solidarity to his students, during an attack by right-wing thugs against an occupied high school in Patras.
[5] On the 2006-2007 movement see Spyros Dritsas and Giorgos Kalampokas, “The First Big Wave 2006-2007” in Clare Solomon and Tania Palmieri (eds.) Springtime. The New Student Rebellions. London, Verso, 2011.
[6] On December 2008 see Panagiotis Sotiris “Aral?k 2008 Yunan Gençik Isyan? ve Bunu Izleyen Toplumsal H?zursuzluk Dalgalari” in Damla Öz, Ferda Dönmez Atbasi ??? Yalçin Bürkev (????.) Gerçek, Yikico ve Yaratici. Dünyada ve Türkiye’de Üniversite, Egitim, Mücadeleri, Ankara, NotaBene, 2011 and Eirini Gaitanou, “The December Explosion”, in Clare Solomon and Tania Palmieri (eds.) Springtime. The New Student Rebellions. London, Verso, 2011.
[7] On the Bologna Process in Greece see Christos Katsikas and Panagiotis Sotiris, The restructuring of the University and the Bologna Process, Athens, Savallas, 2003. See also Dionysios Gouvias, “The Post-modern Rhetoric of Recent Reforms in Greek Higher Education, Journal of Critical Education Policy Studies, vol. 10, n.2, 2012.
[8] See the relevant data at the website.
[9] See the website of unassigned lecturers in Greece .
[10] See Directive 2005/36/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 7 September 2005 on the recognition of professional qualifications.
[12] See Panagiotis Sotiris, “Linda Katehi and the neoliberal reform of Greek Higher Education”,
[13] On the theoretical question of the tendency towards the entrepreneurial university see Panagiotis Sotiris, “Theorizing the Entrepreneurial University: Open questions and possible answers, Journal of Critical Education Policy Studies, vol.10, n. 1, 2012.
[14] See the European Commission’s presentation of the Diploma Supplement
Presentation made at the E?ITIM-SEN Conference on Higher Education, 22 February 2013, in Ankara – republished with permission of the author

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