Friday, 14 July 2006

The Politics of Education

Thanos Veremis talks to the Athens News about how the politics of students, rectors and parties have combined to form an explosive mix against reform

THANOS Veremis, one of the country's top academics, was appointed by the New Democracy government in 2005 to head the eight-member National Education Council (ESYP). He was assigned the tough job of spurring a national debate on how to reform university education in Greece. 

In December 2005, Veremis, an Athens University professor, unveiled ESYP's preliminary proposals amid strong reactions from academics and students. The measures included limits on the numbers of years allowed for the completion of undergraduate degrees and changes to the asylum law which bans police from entering university grounds. 

The government passed its first university reform legislation in 2005 creating a quality assurance body to oversee public universities. In January this year the prime minister also announced his intention to revise article 16 of the constitution to allow non-state universities to offer degrees recognised by the state. But that still left significant reforms on university governance and academic standards to be decided upon. 

On April 28 ESYP presented the final draft of its measures and on May 2 the country's rectors endorsed them in a joint session with ESYP. Veremis told reporters that this final set of reform proposals make up "an entirely new framework law on university education that is to replace the existing legislation introduced by Pasok in 1982." 

One month later, following widespread student protests and sit-ins at universities which prevented final exams from being held, a frustrated Veremis told the Athens News that critics are "constantly bringing up the irrelevant issue of private colleges as a pretext in order to say 'no' to any kind of reform". 

Education Minister Marietta Yannakou took centre-stage on June 21 when she unveiled the government's 30-page draft proposals, adopting most of ESYP's reforms but softening the impact of some. The nationwide unrest also caused the government to reconsider its initial plan to table draft legislation in the parliament this summer. This has been postponed until sometime in the autumn. 

Athens University Rector George Babiniotis tried to upstage Yannakou earlier this month when he issued a call to scrap the drafted reforms and to start a dialogue from scratch. He published a three-page letter on July 4 with suggestions that were roundly rejected by the government and academic community. Two days later, an extraordinary meeting of the national council of university rectors (which Babiniotis heads, but did not attend) ended in a unified stance against the government's proposed reforms. 

In a poll conducted for Skai Radio by VPRC and made public on July 13, 65 percent of Greeks said they thought the student sit-ins would resume in September. With the opposition now against the reform proposals, it is up to the government to decide whether it wants to pass them on a partisan vote, or to make a last-ditch attempt at consensus. 

University rectors had agreed with the ESYP reform proposals on May 2, but they wavered during an unscheduled meeting on July 6. Politics aside, what is your assessment of how the rectors personally feel about the reforms? 

I would say that eighty percent are lock, stock and barrel for the reforms as ESYP expressed them, hence their decision to fall in line at that time. There is a hard core, Panteion and Athens Polytechnic. These are the hardliners, the toughest, who are dead set against, who don't want any reform on any occasion by anybody. There is the university of Athens which is normally on the side of reform, but as of late they have turned against reform. Now, here the explanation must be sought on a personal level, it's not institutional. It's not as though [Athens University Rector George] Babinbiotis intends to run again for office. 

What is his agenda? 

One possible explanation is he may aspire to become the next education minister should Mrs Yannakou fail to pull the reform through. In which case, he might act as the bridge between students who are on the warpath and the government which wants peace and quiet to win the next election. 

Did you have a chance to discuss the students' objections to your reforms with them? Do you feel you understand their motives for objecting? 

It's very difficult to find them because they are ghost students, they are never there, you can only find them on occasions such as this occasion, the sit-ins, and then it's very dangerous to talk to them. You may be beaten up by that rabble because they are a rabble when they are on a warpath. Those we do find are those who appear in class. And I do assure you, because I try the ESYP proposals out on the students, that most, if not all, applaud the reforms and even thought that they were wanting in courage. And by that I mean there were some who thought students should have no say in the election of university authorities. When I expressed disbelief, they said: 'You must realise that we are hostage throughout our university years to a minority of activists. We have no say in what goes on in university, since we are not even allowed to vote. It's the parties that do it for us'. 

Do you care to comment on the roles of the political parties of the opposition to the reforms put forward by the government?

The parties vary. The main culprit of the recent upheaval is [Coalition of the Left] Synaspismos because it feels it may not make the three percent threshold to enter parliament in the next elections. And they would like to get votes from [Greek Communist Party] KKE by going into a rampage of dissent to reform.
KKE is never present in any public affair. They are a revolutionary party which will only bother to deal with the problems of society if there is a revolution and the rest doesn't matter at all - it's just lip service to capitalism.

Then there's [main opposition socialist] Pasok which is in total disarray. Half of the party is in favour of the reforms, the other half doesn't know what to do. The leader of the party agrees with Mr [Prime Minister Costas] Karamanlis on private tertiary education, but he never bothers to say anything on the proposals of ESYP - whether he agrees or not, and whether he has anything else to propose. And then finally the ruling New Democracy party, I think, contains its own minority opinion against the reforms. The question is whether they will have the courage to uphold Mrs Yannakou's determination and to follow her reforms to the end. The backbenchers do not have the power to change party direction. In the final analysis, it's in the hands of Karamanlis [to decide] what reforms to pass if any, and whether to postpone the reforms until after the next [general] election.

Why did Pasok walk out of the 10th session of the ESYP discussions?

They were around for all sessions concerning the evaluation which later became law and thank god has gone through, no small achievement. Pasok was not only very constructive, they offered very good advice and did a very good job. I must commend them on that.

I have repeatedly asked members of Pasok, why on earth did you walk out. I have yet to hear a satisfactory reply. Mrs [Maria] Damanaki once said it was because the government went ahead and voted for lifelong learning almost simultaneously with the [university] evaluation law. It was an important bill but it wasn't a major bill. They may be right in that Yannakou never consulted them on it. I don't think this merited such a radical measure. I think they are confused and they feel they must exhibit some form of opposition to the government.

And they have given even through back channels no concrete proposals?

No concrete proposals that I know of. They consider the call for "comprehensive reforms" a proposal. It's not a proposal, its simply stating the obvious.

The only man to come forward with a concrete counter-proposal is Athens University Rector George Babiniotis with his three-page letter.

Well, the only concrete proposal included in that - I think most of it is abstract invocation - is the zero-based dialogue, which I find impossible to put to use. What does it mean? That you start a dialogue without an agenda? Without a precedent? What? You need another century to come to some basic ideas.

On autonomy, doesn't he have a point - that universities should disburse funds at their own discretion?

Absolutely. But there is one aspect to autonomy entirely missing from Mr Babiniotis' proposal which is the role of those who are in charge of universities now - the student unions and their parties. Were we to deal with the one aspect of autonomy which is from government authority and leave the other, the university would be run without any public scrutiny. 

What should happen to the university departments that no longer have enough student intake to be viable?
They should close down. The obvious thing that happens everywhere. One should take into account the taxpayer, these institutions are not there to procreate their kind. 

Has Mrs Yannakou done too much watering down?

She has done some. In all fairness, she has preserved the most important points. In my estimation, the most important is the election of the university administration by all students. That is the most important one because it will diminish the authority of the student unions. The other one is putting an end to the perpetual student. And she also preserved the asylum question. She watered down considerably the doing away with the one and only textbook in the social sciences, which is all about positions and opinions. But I would say that even if she puts through the three others I would be happy. 

Are you hopeful that some of your purer suggestions can [will] be adopted after October's local elections or fearful that watering down may continue? 

I am hopeful the reforms may go through after the municipal elections. [The thought of] Further watering down makes me shudder. And to wait for another term in office will be disastrous because Mrs Yannakou will, by then, probably have changed ministry and god knows who the next man may be. Adopting the purer form sounds even less plausible as things stand now. 

Would you ever back introduction of fees to the public system? 

I wouldn't dare at this juncture because things are difficult as they are. If anyone introduced the idea of fees at this point it would undermine the whole attempt to reform education. It may come later along the line, if things go well. 

People opposed to private universities say it is because of a possible inflation of standards. Opponents of the currently proposed reforms also suggest that if applied they would, at the end of the day, lead to more 'closed', 'class-orientated' universities? 

I am not very hopeful that when private institutions do begin to function, and they will because it is a requirement of the European Union, that this will make much of a difference in tertiary education. Because I doubt that there will be brave investors who will put their money in important private institutions. I am afraid we will end up with chapters of little known universities of the United States mainly, names we have never heard of, universities that exist in name only. That is why I am so insistent on putting all our effort into reforming public universities.

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