This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
Shortly after 10pm on April 2nd, an unidentified group walked onto the campus of the University of Macedonia in northern Greece. The group’s members, about a dozen strong, were carrying motorcycle helmets and short crowbars. They were looking for students from the conservative youth movement, who had earlier argued with a left-wing student over where to place campaign posters ahead of student elections. They found them barricaded in a store room.
“A female voice said ‘they’re in here’,” says Yiorgos, a second year business student, who was in the room. “One of them kicked the door open and the five of us boys heaved against it to keep it shut.” The attackers swung a bronze fire hose nozzle like a ball-and-chain to smash through four layers of drywall, and eventually broke into the room.
“They were shouting ‘we will kill you, we will slaughter you, you’re finished’,” says Antonis, another of the besieged students. “They hit us with crowbars and stockings filled with batteries, which they swung around like lassos.”
The attackers remained on campus for three quarters of an hour. Yiorgos suffered a fractured finger as he protected his head from the blow of a crowbar. Antonis suffered a fractured skull. A third student needed stitches to the back of his head and a fourth suffered a broken nose. What none of them can understand is why police refused to intervene.
Before the attack started, the conservative youth office on campus called the authorities. “They said they couldn’t enter the campus without an order from the chancellor,” says Antonis. “We then called the chancellor but he was in Scotland on a business trip. We then called the deputy chancellor and he called the authorities. By the time the police got here the perpetrators had gone.”
Police refused to comment on the incident pending the result of an official investigation; but it appears that they failed to follow the law.
Greek higher education campuses used to enjoy a legal status known as asylum. Police could only enter them following a joint invitation by the university chancellor, the head of administrative staff and the elected head of the student body. In practice, however, such invitations were extremely difficult to secure because student representatives, as a rule, boycotted the vote.
Asylum was abolished three years ago because campuses had become a haven for fugitives from justice, including petty criminals, drug addicts and undocumented migrants. Yet police are still reluctant to enter because their presence is deemed politically unseemly. Universities are still seen as society's counterweight to authoritarianism, so the law is not always applied.
The roots of sacrosanct status
The view of universities as sanctuaries from regular civil law enforcement goes back to 1973, when a military dictatorship then ruling Greece brutally suppressed an uprising at the Athens Polytechnic with tanks and armed police. Students had merely claimed the right to elect representatives to university bodies, but they shook the regime. Democracy was restored the following year, partly thanks to the student movement.
Like much of Europe, Greece lurched politically to the left in the early 1980s. The Polytechnic generation came to power with the socialist party in 1981. It swiftly established asylum as part of an education law that introduced the election of university chancellors by the student body – a level of democracy unheard of in most university systems.
“Instead of freedom we administered - or didn’t administer - our licentiousness, the tendency of most Greeks to feel free of the constraints of the law,” says Thanos Veremis, professor emeritus of political history at Athens University.
Violence is usually political, and peaks at student elections or in the run-up to chancellorship elections.
“The people who take [violent] action belong to the extreme, non-parliamentary left,” says Sakis Ioannidis, the head of the conservative youth movement, ONNED, using an elaborate term for anarchists. He believes that such a mix of people attacked the movement’s students at the University of Macedonia, where victims heard their attackers shout “long live anarchy!”
ONNED has since asked for the creation of a dedicated campus police force that will act preventively and liaise with police.
Broader reform stymied
Such a force might stem much of the opportunity for violence but not the desire, believes Spyros Amourgis, professor of Architecture at California State University and the Athens School of Fine Arts.
“Violence occurs when there is no [student] satisfaction and no student culture,” he says. “Most of our students don’t study what interests them, but what will bring them money.”
Amourgis decries the utilitarian Greek attitude to education. “Our universities don’t develop personality. For the most part they are injections of knowledge,” he says. “When you’re interested in your studies, you care.”
The culture of disillusionment is perhaps most evident at the anarchists’ den in the basement of the Athens University of Economics and Business. A painted banner above it reads, “Welcome to the kingdom of the ‘competent’, where success is always written in euros.” Beneath is a gun shooting somebody’s brains out.
University reform has been a top political issue for a decade. Greek universities score poorly in international rankings; until a few years ago they had no external evaluation and did not qualify for European funding; the democratic measures introduced in the 1980s were quickly subverted - faculty appointments, chancellorship elections and even some student admissions became tightly controlled by parties.
A first reform wave in 2005-7 introduced external evaluation and scaled back party influence in chancellorship elections. A second law in 2011 introduced university Councils to manage finances and appointments transparently.
The latter hasn’t been properly implemented, says Vaso Kindi, a philosophy professor who sits on the newly formed Council at Athens University. “The law calls for a separate legal entity that will take possession of all the university’s assets, and which the Council selects a CEO to lead. The chancellors don’t want this entity to be formed,” says Kindi.
The result is that the university’s revenue from properties sometimes remains uncollected. For instance, the Athens University Council found uncollected rents worth $2.4million, in some cases going back to 2000.
Athens University remains so opaque that the public administration inspector, a transparency watchdog, has asked the financial fraud squad to audit it. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras asked for all university discretionary accounts to be audited. “None of this has happened. No-one wants to disturb anything. That’s the bottom line,” says Kindi.
And the bottom line is indeed affected. “Who is going to donate money to a university that operates in this fashion?” she asks.
The ability to attract private donations is increasingly at issue. Last year, Greek higher education received $1.3bn from the state, a 40 percent drop over two years. That put higher education spending at 0.56 percent of GDP, compared to an EU27 average of 0.91 percent. The government shut down two regional universities and eliminated some 400 departments. Universities were allowed to raid up to 40 percent of their endowments to top up operating costs.
Public education funding is now set to drop again by almost a quarter over the next two years.
Even if transparency prevails and donations flow, enormous reforms remain undone, which hurt the economy as a whole.
Greece is the only European Union member that still doesn’t recognise other member states’ degrees automatically, dishonouring its signature on the Bologna Accords. Re-qualifying in Greece can take years, and sends many of the brightest Greek graduates back overseas.
Greece is also the only EU member that doesn’t recognise degrees issued by non-state colleges or by the franchisees of EU universities on Greek soil. Article 16 of itsconstitution preserves higher education as an exclusive object of the public sector and doesn’t allow fees in public institutions.
The result is a public university system that shuns innovation and an atrophied private college system that is shedding jobs McKinsey, the consulting firm, estimates that Greece is losing $9.5bn in seven key sectors, including potential education exports, because of its rigid laws.
Even Greeks seem to be running away from their universities. They make up the third-largest nationality of EU students in British universities after the German and French, but the largest by far in proportion to population.
Some progress in governance is due this month, when the last remaining chancellors elected under the old, party-dominated system are to be replaced; and prime minister Antonis Samaras announced on May 7 that he will pursue a constitutional amendment to recognise non-state university degrees.
Will this succeed? His deputy, socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos, is the man who torpedoed that very reform in 2007. Even if Samaras prevails, he needs bipartisan support and the left is invested against reform.
Vasilis Vasilopoulos, a fourth year IT student at the Athens University of Economics and Business, is loyal to EAAK, the United Independent Left Movement, a non-parliamentary group. He explains the left’s view of university reform succinctly: “[The government’s] only goal is to destroy free, public education. They want a smaller university by reducing the number of enrolments and a less democratic university by autocratically controlling the administration.” Samaras would appear to have his work cut out for him. Trends suggest that the Greeks who can afford to will study abroad for years to come.