Can Europe Make It?

University in Greece: the cradle of politics

Like many prominent Greek politicians, Alexis Tsipras cut his teeth as a student politician in the intense and fascinating world of Greek university politics.

Yannis Paradeisiadis
30 January 2015

Greek university students protest in Athens. Demotix/Nikolas Georgiou. All rights reserved.

At only 40 years of age Alexis Tsipras, has become the youngest prime minister in Greek history, after emerging victorious from the national election. Though young, Tsipras is certainly not an inexperienced politician, already numbering 25 years in politics. Like many prominent Greek politicians, he too cut his teeth as a student politician who rose through the ranks of his party. University politics in Greece is both an intense ideological battleground and a breeding ground for future politicians.

Tsipras began his involvement with politics as a high school student, joining the Greek Communist Youth. At age 16 he was a prominent member of a national sit-in movement in high schools. He went on to join several leftist youth parties as a student in the Athens Polytechnic, where he studied civil engineering. He quickly moved up the ranks to be appointed Secretary of the youth branch of Synaspismos, which in 2004 formed the basis of the newly-formed Syriza coalition party.

University politics in Greece has long been influential, since at least the re-establishment of democracy after the 1967-1974 junta. Organized students built up important resistance against the regime during that time. The restoration of democracy is still celebrated on November 17, in honour of the Athens Polytechnic uprising of 1973.

Today, most major political parties are represented by official or affiliate youth parties in universities. The issues that the student councils address often extend beyond the scope of education, reflecting Greece's political divide. Austerity policy has become a reference point for conflict between youth parties. Their resolutions often lead to the occupation of university buildings as a form of protest, putting academic activity on hold.

Over time, student bodies assumed significant powers in their institutions' administration. Vasso Kindi, a professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Athens and a member of the institution's administrative council, explains: "In 1981, with a socialist government in power, a new law for universities was passed and students were allowed to participate in the administration of the university on an almost equal basis with the faculty. They would vote for the rector, the deans, the departmental heads, and they would be present in every meeting of every administration body."

These developments cemented the parties' grip, says Kindi: "Given that especially the rector assumed a highly visible position with political leverage and power to manage significant funds and hire individuals in the university (from faculty members to administrative staff), political parties wanted to have a say in his election. Various coalitions were being formed so that the parties’ favourites would be nominated and elected. The rector would in return make things easy for party members, party followers and/or party clients in the university.

This whole network gave youth parties in the universities considerable power. They could control elections and they would be called in by university officials to disrupt meetings so that certain undesirable decisions to be made were blocked. Their close ties to university officials allowed them to attract a following with the students, whom they offered an easier student life. This would include more exam periods to pass their tests, easier access to graduate school, etc."

Not only students, but also academics often make a move to politics. Theodoros Fortsakis, rector of the country's oldest and largest university, University of Athens, quit his job on January 11th and got elected into parliament with New Democracy, the outgoing government party. His predecessor, Theodosis Pelegrinis, ran with Syriza. In many ways, politics and universities are intertwined. Many of the new administration's ministers are academics with no previous experience in government.

Youth parties in universities do not want to be seen as simple branches of their parent parties. Elati Pontikopoulou-Venieri, a member of Left Unity in the University of Athens says: "What links Left Unity with Syriza is our mutual reference to radical leftist ideology. Some of our members are also members of Syriza, but we are an autonomous entity and receive no funding by the party." Irini Papageorgiou, member of DAP, the university branch of New Democracy party, says they've often clashed with official New Democracy positions: "We do share the same liberal ideology, but New Democracy hasn't always adhered to it in practice, especially in the last few years."

Although most students are not associated with youth parties, these still direct most decisions of the student assembly. "They represent a very small fraction but have managed to pose as representatives of the student body", says Kindi. "Most students either try to just concentrate on their studies or, simply, couldn’t care less for what is going on. It should be taken into account that class attendance in Greek universities is not mandatory (a lot of students work or do not participate in academic life at all). It seems that they are just interested in the exams. So, as long as the youth parties' activity has no ramifications for their exams (since the faculty always finds ways to cancel all putative harmful consequences of student sit-ins, etc), students do not react to the disruption of academic life by the student activists."


One of the main areas of clash between university parties is the issue of sit-ins, where students occupy university facilities. Though standing law prohibits the practice, student councils are in effect free to use this form of protest. If the student assembly votes in favour of a motion to shut down the university, rarely will the authorities try to block it. Depending on the circumstances, occupation of university buildings can last from one day to several weeks at a time.

On that issue DAP has a very different view from their leftist counterparts: "We always advocate open universities. We are opposed to sit-ins. Even though we are faced with many problems, shutting down the university is always at the expense of students. It's clear to us that sit-ins should be considered illegal."

Christos Xagoraris, member of EAAK (United Independent Left Movement), who usually propose motions for sit-ins, disagrees: "None of us have a sit-in fetish. But when no one is willing to hear our demands, we are left with no other choice. As students, we need to find a way to apply political pressure. Several student movements have achieved change in the past using this practice. To those saying that sit-ins have been overused and abused, I'd reply that the real abuse came from the government's attempts to force consecutive changes on universities, undermining free public education."

Left Unity adopts a more conciliatory tone: "The question of sit-ins has to do with universities' twofold character; they should be seen as both an educational space and a free social space. This means that simply attending class isn't enough. Beside knowledge, we need to ensure we are provided with a decent level of studies and opportunity for the future, even at the expense of missing a few classes."

Vasso Kindi argues that sit-ins are never legitimate: "Student activists and their allies, who usually have no relation to the academic community, bar entrance to buildings where students want to attend classes, faculty wants to teach and do research and administrative staff wants to work. Other despicable practices such as destroying faculty offices and university property, shutting down the server, blocking elections or stealing the ballot box are completely unacceptable."

Free public education

A lot of debate revolves around free public education. Though unequivocally supported by all university parties, the exact meaning and range of the term is hotly disputed. Where parties disagree is on the issue of private universities, which are not allowed by the Constitution. Though private colleges do exist, they are not accredited as higher education institutions. This in turn means that their graduates aren't considered university degree holders, which is an official requirement for many positions in the public sector.

Constitutional amendment to enable the establishment of private universities has often been proposed but met with fierce opposition, mainly from leftist parties. "As citizens, of course students have a say as regards the issue of allowing non-public universities to operate in Greece",  says Kindi. "But their identity as students does not give them any special privilege to do so. This is an issue of national interest and relates to basic principles of liberal democracy."

"No one should be allowed to buy themselves an education", says Pontikopoulou-Venieri. "Universities should be exclusively public, so that everyone has access to them. The establishment of private universities would instantly undermine public ones, especially in a country like Greece. It's exactly what happened to public schools because of private schools."

"Those who don't get admitted into Greek universities already leave en masse and study abroad. I don't see how this is better than establishing private universities in Greece", says Papageorgiou. "Private institutions should, of course, be monitored to ensure the quality of their services."


Reform of university education has been attempted on several occasions in the past, but always met with strong resistance. Kindi thinks the most recent law, voted into law in 2011 and amended in 2012, has curbed party power: "This law barred students from voting in the elections for university officials and prescribed that students elect one representative for an annual term in office. They have yet to elect any representatives. Their power has diminished considerably, but their militant activism (often unlawful) makes headlines in the media, thus giving the impression that they still control things in the academe."

One of the provisions of this controversial education bill called for the expulsion of inactive students. Under the previous system, students who failed to finish their studies on time were not expelled from universities. Regardless of a reason, students could pause or even completely abandon their studies and then resume them at any point in the future.

As a result, inactive students piled up over the years, sometimes outnumbering active students even by 10 to 1. The new law introduced a cap on the duration of studies, known in Greece as n+2, limiting studies to 2 years after the regular timeframe. The law has only partially been enacted, with some universities refusing to implement it. Though it was voted in parliament with a large majority, it has also sparked strong reactions.

Papageorgiou thinks the measure is necessary: "Some students have been enrolled since 1974. No one is forced to complete their studies, but, if they want to, they must do it within a certain timeframe."

"The way the new law is implemented is vengeful", thinks Pontikopoulou-Venieri. "Putting your studies on hold was seen as something acceptable under the previous law. This policy was passed under the pretense that inactive students burden universities. In reality though they have no entitlements or student benefits. They are simply allowed to take part in examinations."

Xagoraris thinks n+2 is part of the state's attempts to 'intensify' young people's studies: "The government essentially admits that this has nothing to do with saving money; it's about creating robot-students who must only focus on their studies and shouldn't be politically active."

Syriza has promised to reverse this law and restore the students already ejected from universities. The new minister of education confirmed this week that the law will be reversed and invited expelled students to return to their universities. No time limit will be placed on studies.

Student activists

When university parties aren't busy fighting over ideology, they organize events, ranging from political lectures to nightclub parties. Some, like DAP, even offer to help students with their studies, providing lecture notes, study guides etc. The most active members spend a lot of their time catering to such needs. The question, consequently, is what's in it for them.

Pontikopoulou-Venieri says she is more interested in an academic career than one in politics, but wanted to get involved: "I just couldn't remain indifferent to what happened around me; on one of my first days in university I saw riot police chasing immigrants in our backyard. It was covered in blood. In addition to all that, the economic crisis exacerbated the need for change in our universities."

"I joined DAP because it's the only party whose ideology I embrace", says Papageorgiou. "I wanted to contribute solutions to the problems facing my university, but have no political ambitions for the future. I find mainstream politics too corrupt."

Still, loyalty is often rewarded with positions in the party apparatus, providing a head start to those aspiring to political careers. To many, youth parties are synonymous with professional politics. According to Kindi, those who stand to gain most from the current situation can be divided into two categories: "First, it is populist politicians in and outside the academe who use these events to force their agenda in public life. Secondly, individuals within the university, who use these much publicized events as a pretext for their often questionable tactics. Public attention concentrates on violence and does not care to look deeper and uncover practices of nepotism, favouritism, the squandering of public money, etc."

The political establishment benefits strongly from its university branches. The mechanism is standard, according to Kindi: "Political parties recruit party cadres from the university youth activists and build a strong party following, which they keep for years." The parties not only gain people, but can project their positions to a broad and influential audience: "They launch their agendas in university campuses and mobilize students whose activities are more visible and more visibly political in comparison with other groups."

Politics still occupy centre stage in Greek universities. Youth parties are necessarily factored in to any decision involving higher education. Syriza, which is more sympathetic to student activism than the outgoing conservative government, is expected to cancel many of the recent educational reforms. What becomes of Greek higher education remains to be seen. One thing is for certain: While Alexis Tsipras, as old as restored Greek democracy, settles in to the country's top job, a new generation of ideologues, activists and politicians will be following in his footsteps in universities around Greece.

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