Education Minister Marietta Giannakou yesterday defended the government’s record of support for state universities, claiming that funding has increased this year, as university staff and students staged a poorly attended demonstration in central Athens protesting a new law permitting the creation of private universities. Ministry figures made public yesterday indicate a 13.5 percent increase in funding for state universities, which reached 210 million euros this year compared to 185 million euros last year. «This is the first time in many years that the state has offered such (an increase) to universities,» a ministry statement said, adding that the boost had been approved «during a time of particular fiscal difficulties.» «It is with a sense of responsibility that the ministry reiterates its intention to firmly pursue the development and improvement of education without cutbacks, discounts or compromises,» Giannakou declared after the protest. Yesterday’s rally by university academic staff, who are due to end a five-day strike today, attracted only about 1,000 participants – mostly students and far short of the estimates of both organizers and police. Protesters were also expressing their support for widespread protests in France against government labor reforms. Professors, who have asked to meet with Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, will decide today whether to extend their action. Giannakou yesterday suggested that the academic staff had a «hidden agenda» as they were persisting with strike action despite evidence showing a hike in funding for their sector. A parliamentary debate on education is likely to be held soon following a proposal by Greek Communist Party (KKE) chief Aleka Papariga.