Greek uni students fight despair of austerity
By Oliver Staley
In the universities of Athens, the city where Plato taught and Cicero studied, campuses are covered in anarchist graffiti, stray dogs run through buildings and students take lessons in Swedish with the aim of emigrating.
Higher education in Greece, as in much of Europe, has been battered by the recession and austerity measures. Budget cuts of 23 percent since 2009 mean buildings aren’t heated in the winter, schools have slashed faculty salaries and newly hired professors can wait more than a year to be appointed. Students say it’s hard to be hopeful with youth unemployment surpassing 50 percent and protesters seizing university buildings.
“People are pessimistic and sad,” said Konstantinos Markou, a 19-year-old law student, speaking in a lobby at the University of Athens, where dogs fought nearby and students say drug dealers and users congregate. “The sadness is all around the air.”
Public spending on universities has been cut across the region, with Italy, Greece, Hungary and the UK seeing reductions of more than 10 percent since 2008, according to the European University Association in Brussels. The cuts are especially damaging for countries in southern Europe transitioning from low-productivity economies based on agriculture and light manufacturing to knowledge-based economies that demand an educated workforce, said Gayle Allard, an economist who studies employment trends at IE Business School in Madrid.
“For an economy like Italy or Spain or Greece, higher education is a driver for turning yourself into a high- productivity economy,” Allard said in an interview. “They’ve got to break through this and that’s why education is more important for them than for other countries.”
Universities in southern Europe trail those of their northern neighbors and the U.S. in global rankings. In the Times Higher Education 2011-2012 table of the world Top 400 universities, Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, at 186, is the highest- ranked southern European school. The University of Crete -- in the band of 276 to 300 -- is the only Greek institution on the list. The California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, is the top school.
There is a connection between investing in higher education and economic growth, said Thomas Estermann, heads of the funding and governance unit at the European University Association, which numbers 850 members in 47 countries including universities and groups related to higher education. For countries desperate for growth, cutting education spending “is a pretty grim prescription,” he said in an interview.
As universities in Greece reduce salaries and slow hiring, young academics are rethinking their careers there, said Leonidas Karakatsanis, 39, who received his PhD in political science last year from the University of Essex in England and has a research fellowship at Panteion University in Athens.
Job prospects slim
“My initial plan was to spend some years abroad and return back to Greece,” Karakatsanis said. “Now it seems like it’s impossible to return to Greece. I’m starting to imagine myself living abroad for the next 15 to 20 years.”
Professors at Greek universities are civil servants paid by the state and their wages aren’t tied to their productivity.
Greece is facing its fifth straight year of economic contraction and the country will be further hobbled by austerity measures linked to its financial bailout by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. On March 1, to help secure a 130 billion euro ($171 billion) loan package, the Greek parliament approved a 3.2 billion-euro spending-cut plan that includes reductions in pensions and wages for government employees.
Undergraduates are worried about the job market when they graduate. The unemployment rate for active job seekers from 15 to 24 years old was 51 percent in December, according to the government’s statistics service. For all ages, it was 21 percent.
Angry and disappointed
Elizabeth Iounnou, 22, an architecture student at the National Technical University of Athens, said that many of last year’s graduates don’t have permanent jobs and that she worries about her prospects. Her parents are suffering after a 20 percent pay cut “and when the time comes for us to work, it will be worse,” she said.
The blame lies with politicians, and those that benefitted from a corrupt political system, who stole her future, Iounnou said.
“It is unfair,” she said. “I am angry and most of all I am disappointed.”
Many students are hoping to study and eventually work abroad. Nancy Athanasopoulou, 20, a law student, is taking Swedish lessons with the hope of living and working in Sweden. In her language class of 20, only three plan to stay in Greece, she said.
“The whole class is planning on leaving for Sweden,” Athanasopoulou said. “We hear it has a good economy, good salary, good working conditions.”
Greek universities face issues that go beyond financing, students, professors and administrators say.
The higher-education system is a legacy of the student-led revolt against the 1970s dictatorship, said Dimitri Sotiropoulos, an associate professor of political science at the University of Athens.
“In Europe, and in southern Europe in particular, universities were always the hub of reform movements and even revolutionary movements,” Sotiropoulos said in an interview. “It was the only space where antifascist intellectuals could express opinions.”
As a result, Greek students have a significant role in the governance and administration of the universities, including a say in the hiring of the rectors in charge, Sotiropoulos said. That power is often exploited by political parties, which have large and active youth branches, to fight reform, he said.
Low graduation rate
Greeks attend university and vocational schools at a higher rate than students in Germany, Spain or Switzerland, with 43 percent of college-aged Greeks enrolled in 2007, the most recent year that statistics were available from the Organization of European Cooperation and Development in Paris. Yet only 18 percent graduate, one of the lowest rates in Europe.
Greek students pay no tuition, a fact enshrined in the constitution, so there’s no incentive to leave college, said Alan Ruby, a senior fellow for international education at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
“Greece has a high consumption of higher education without effective application,” Ruby said. “It’s not being used in economically productive terms. The state is not getting a return on investment.”
Another legacy of the 1970s youth movement was a prohibition against police entering campus. Originally intended to protect student protesters from police brutality, it meant drug dealers and users could find asylum on campuses, Sotiropoulos said. While that law was overturned last year, the deans must invite police on campus, and because the deans were elected by students, they are loath to do so, he said.
Greek higher education badly needs reform to create a system that responds to the needs of Greece’s economy, said Anna Diamantopoulou, the former education minister who was named minister of development and shipping on March 6. The government is now trying to forge links between academia and private industry, and encourage research collaborations outside Greece, she said.
“Among the huge mistakes of our political system and economy, one of our biggest was at the university,” Diamantopoulou said in an interview at the Education Ministry. “We lost excellence and inspiration.”
One government initiative is to capitalize on Athens’s heritage and open a center for the study of philosophy to attract foreign students, she said.
“We want to use philosophy as a national product,” she said.
Legislation that passed in August by a wide majority reduces the power of students, subjects professors to research audits and, for the first time, creates outside governance councils, all of which will help break up the calcified system, Diamantopoulou said.
“What we want to see, what the Greek people want to see, is Greek universities among the best in Europe,” she said.
While the reforms are desperately needed, the timing means they are being lost in Greece’s larger struggle over austerity measures, Sotiropoulos said.
“The restructuring has coincided with widespread resistance to the new economic policies and to any policy that looks like it,” he said.
Students are fighting the moves to limit their power, and physically blocked voters from casting ballots that would create the new councils, Sotiropoulos said. Rectors have no incentive to force the changes, he said.
Not everyone agrees that the measures will work, especially in the middle of a greater financial crisis.
“Greece suffers from reform fatigue,” said Dimitris Plantzos, an assistant professor of history and archeology, who is taking a job at the University of Athens. “The idea to start something new when the economy is collapsing doesn’t make sense.”
The government is overreaching and trying to do too much when more fundamental problems need to be solved, said Plantzos, who received his PhD at the University of Oxford in England. The nation can’t hope to build elite universities until it can provide a basic education, he said.
“Here in Greece, we cannot be Oxford and Cambridge,” Plantzos said. “We need to pay our electricity bills first.” [Bloomberg]