Reforms come under fire

More than 6,000 students, teachers and academics demonstrated in central Athens yesterday against government plans to reform the education system and allow private universities to operate in the country. Minor violence occurred during a similar protest in Thessaloniki, where a group of masked youths broke out of a 3,000-strong crowd and threw petrol bombs at a traffic camera and an Albanian diplomat’s parked car, causing minor damage. The protests have crippled the country’s tertiary education system, with more than 300 university departments closed due to student sit-in protests against the bill. The lockdown action could result in the cancellation of the exam period, as students keep guard over university entrances and forbid teaching staff from entering. Police mounted strong security for yesterday’s march, fearing a repeat of violence that marred previous student protests when anarchists clashed with riot police, burnt cars and smashed windows. Opponents to non-state universities argue that the change will make university degrees off limits to lower income groups. The Hellenic Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (POSDEP) yesterday started a three-day strike and has warned that it will begin a prolonged strike as of next week. The education community, however, appears split on the issue. A group of leading university professors said earlier this week they will declare their support for the reforms and are expected to meet with Education Minister Marietta Giannakou today to convey their message in person. The professors, who support various political parties, will aim to forge a middle ground between the government and protesting educators. Giannakou said that Greece needs to improve the competitiveness of its tertiary institutions. «Most university staff understand that we need to adjust to the new reality,» said the minister. «Greece cannot be absent or fall behind the good universities of Europe,» she added. Parliament is expected to vote by early March on the reforms, which are backed by main opposition PASOK but opposed by left-wing opposition parties.