On 13 December 2012, the Eurogroup approved the release of 49.1 billion euro bail-out tranche to Greece. This was an outcome of lengthy negotiations and extreme pressure by the Troika on the Greek government for the implementation of a range of structural reforms. Part of the reforms concerned higher education.
The Greek higher education system has been subject to debate and criticism for a number of reasons (OECD, 2011; Marseilles, 2009). Primarily its inefficiencies relate to the long existence of political opportunism and clientelism in the governance of Greek higher education institutions. Lack of accountability, low quality and nepotism are some of the arguments used to describe the existing state of governance and operation of higher education institutions.
On the other hand, those in defence of the current regime argue that extreme political intervention and lack of appropriate strategic direction by the government are to blame for the current problems of the Greek higher education system.
Closure of 170 HE departments
Since 2011, the Troika has been pushing the Greek government for the implementation of reforms which target the inefficiencies of the public sector, including higher education institutions. Similar calls for reforms in higher education had been made by the OECD (2011) and the Hellenic Quality Assurance Agency (2012). The Greek government has responded to these calls with a new plan for the merger and rationalization of the public higher education network is pursued by the coalition government.
The plan, named “Athena”, aims in rationalizing the higher education system and, according the Minister Arvanitopoulos, to combat the overspecializing in disciplines and areas with low or no relevance to needs of the real economy (2012). Today there are 24 universities in 36 cities and 16 higher technological institutes in 40 cities and towns across Greece. The Athena plan aims to reduce the number of higher education departments from 520 today to 350 in the new academic year (2012-13).
According information published in the Greek press, the Athena plan is based on four principles/drivers for the rationalisation/downsizing of the Greek higher education system (Kalimeri, 2012). First, the contribution of each higher education department in the development of the local community, second its student/teaching staff ratio, third the degree of employability of its graduates and fourth its adequacy of infrastructure.
The more detailed criteria for the merger/closure of departments will be: 1) their physical size and structure, setting particular thresholds for the minimum required number of students, a minimum ratio of teaching and research staff, 2) their geographical location, combating the dispersion of departments in remote locations, 3) their subject area, targeting the existence of departments in the same institution with similar and overlapping subjects, 4) their quality and sustainability of departments, 5) their ratio of students/academics, 6) their attractiveness/popularity in student applications, 7) their existing infrastructure, 8) their research activity and international recognition, 9) the employability of their graduates, 10) their existing postgraduate programmes and the doctorates awarded.
The council of rectors is opposing to the Athena plan, asking for more time of negotiations before its implementation. However, according to the minister Arvanitopoulos, the plan will be implemented as planned in February 2013.
Professional rights for private college graduates
Another issue which seems to be solved under a new law, which the Greek government was forced to vote as a requirement for the release of bail-out tranche, is the long anticipated recognition of professional rights for the graduates of private Colleges which operate in Greece as partnerships of foreign universities. Paradoxically, there has not been a similar bold reform for the recognition of professional rights for the graduates of the pubic higher technological institutes (ATEI), an issue which is pending for 20, or so, years.
Reflecting on a previous article of mine where I have argued that the debt crisis and the Troika requirements have acted as catalyst for change in Greek public policy, I would not hesitate to argue that the recent requirements for the release of the bail-out tranche are, to a great extent, in the right direction.
Booming Greek brain-drain
Nevertheless, responding to the need for reforms in public sector and particularly higher education is only one part of the equation. The most critical issue, though, remains the exponential rise in unemployment particularly in young graduates. At the end of 2012 the rate of unemployment in young Greeks rose to 58% and the number of young Greeks (up to the age of 35) who emigrated abroad in search of employment reached record levels.
This should be added to the existing number of Greeks who study abroad and only 16% of them are considering returning to Greece after graduation (Lamprinidis, 2011). Stabilising the collapsing employment market and slowing down the booming brain-drain is the other, more pressing in my view, issue.
Additionally, one should not forget that the central issue of Greek public policy, including higher education, is the divergence between theory and practice. The Greek government, irrespective of the political party in power, has proven to be very effective in legislating an extensive and complex set of new laws so as to respond the Troika calls for structural reforms. However, it has been equally ineffective in implementing these laws while stubbornly refusing to take on-board any political cost.
Overconcentration on squeezing public funding
As I have mentioned in my recent speech in the European Student Union Convention in Cyprus, across Europe there has been an overconcentration on squeezing public funding in an effort to respond to calls for fiscal consolidation while replicating business-like models for the management of higher education, which clearly are not appropriate.
The common problem in most counties, and not only in Europe, is the great disparity between the velocity in which HEIs “produce” graduates and the pace that the global economy is creating new jobs. Very soon, if not already, it would be become obvious that this situation is not sustainable. Thus, severe cuts in funding and extreme new-managerial practices should not be the norm for higher education policy.
Clearly, Greece is a special case and as such should not be used to justify harsher austerity and neo-liberal measures/policies in higher education elsewhere. For years, it has been an economy driven by public sector activity while its higher education has failed, at large, to keep pace with the international developments.
For Greece the big question remains: how far can Greece’s politicians go in implementing reforms which were obviously needed for long time now?
In my view, it is very unlikely that the existing political regime would like to go all the way, or/and fast enough, with the implementation of changes. These changes will unease a great portion of civil servants, including those at the top management of HEIs, who used to be the main clientele of the existing political parties.
Previous articles by Vangelis Tsiligiris:
What will happen to Greece if it leaves the Eurozone?
Europe privatizes public debt through student loans
The economic crisis gave rise to a new wave of neoliberal policies in higher education
Arvanitopoulos, K. (2012). S????te??? t?? ?p?????? ?a?de?a? ?a? T??s?e?µ?t??, ????t?sµ?? ?a? ????t?sµ??, ???sta?t???? ??ßa??t?p????? st?? ?a??µe???? t?? ????a???. [Online]. Available from: http://tinyurl.com/dxrb74v. [Accessed: 13 December 2012].
HQAA (2012). HQAA annual report 2011-12. [Online]. Athens: Hellenic Quality Assurance Agency. Available from: http://goo.gl/5B2Ll. [Accessed: 13 December 2012].
Kalimeri, C. (2012). ?a t?sse?a ??e?d?? ??a t? s??d?? «?????». ?µe??s?a. [Online]. 11 December. Available from: http://www.imerisia.gr/article.asp?catid=26510&subid=2&pubid=112962754. [Accessed: 13 December 2012].
Lamprinidis, L. (2011). ?pe?d???ta? st? f??? ? d?a???? ep?st?µ???? ap? t?? ????da t?? ep??? t?? pa???sµ??p???s??. – Ed. ????a: ???t???.
Marseilles, M. (2009). University World News – GREECE: Access reform overdue. [Online]. 15 March 2009. University World News. Available from: http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20090313111826534. [Accessed: 17 August 2011].
OECD (2011). Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education. Education Policy advice for Greece. [Online]. Available from: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/27/6/48407731.pdf.