Can Europe Make It?

What is a University and what does it need?

Greece needs a radical overhaul of its corrupt University system. The creation of autonomous University Councils, such as those in the UK where I teach, would be a good step towards this.

Costas Douzinas
2 June 2015
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Crowds gathered outside the Greek Parliament to protest against the Education Bill that was being discussed inside. Demonstrators called for a rejection of the bill. New Democracy parliamentary spokesman Adonis Georgiadis also attended. Demotix/Michael Debets. Some rights reserved.

It is never too late for someone to be part of the resistance. Thus, we the old dissidents must welcome the 32, 58 or 1,000 colleagues who despised us only a few months ago, but have now taken to the streets protesting the legislation by Minister for Education, Aristides Baltas.[1]

It would be a shame for someone who has lived in Athens for the last five years not to have experienced the excitement of a rally at Syntagma square. I imagine that the presence of the usual ministerial suspects limited the ecstasy of the intellectuals but even the "indignant citizens" had an "upper" part of the square [where right-wing nationalists assembled].

But let's be serious. It's time to do something that has not been done in recent years: have a real conversation on education, which doesn't start from political or ideological ulterior motives.

Comparing Britain and Greece

I will begin with a comparison of my forty years experience at an English University with the unforgettable legislation proposed by former Education Minister Anna Diamantopoulou.

Let’s start with the UK and their common University Councils. I am an elected member of the respective Council at Birkbeck College, University of London. Two members are elected by the professors, two by the lecturers and associate professors, two by the students and two by the administrators. The lay members are trade unionists, entrepreneurs and London local councillors. Every community that works, serves or is related to the university is therefore represented in the Council.

But the University Councils created by Diamantopoulou are a sad imitation of those in American private universities and cannot be compared with those of Britain.

The Council of my University does not decide academic policy or who can be the candidate in the elections for Chancellors or Deans. The former is the responsibility of the Academic Board, the latter the outcome of elections.

The Council’s role is to oversee the financial situation of the University, to guarantee academic freedom and to be the contact point with local society.

Such a mild version of University Councils could be introduced in Greece only if the institutional framework was radically different. 

The main difference is that British universities are fully self-governed. The government provides each year a block grant to HEFCE, an independent authority, in which Universities are represented. HEFCE distributes this to its members according to known and set criteria.

The funding depends on the number of students, the ratio of students to faculty (which must be low) and the research needs of each university. Until recently.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats - ideological allies of the right-wing New Democracy and PASOK parties - abolished the bulk of funding for teaching in 2013 and asked universities to fill the gap with higher fees.

We thus reached the paradox that public institutions have imposed a £9,000 fee for undergraduate studies and a price tag of tens of thousands for postgraduate studies.

I don't think anyone doubted that fees would soon be introduced in Greece under the previous regime and legislative arrangements. This is what the new law prevents.

I have of course heard many ministers in the past promise self-government to universities but this never happened.

The university has always been an instrument for petty politics. As I heard in the 80s, new universities opened in places where the government of the day wanted "rooms to be rented and kebabs sold."

The Councils introduced by the Diamantopoulou Act and abolished by the recent law were the latest trick used for political and administrative manipulation. They were considered necessary after the resistance of students and academics in 2006 prevented the joint decision of PASOK - ND to allow the establishment of private universities. It was the greatest recent success of the student movement in Europe.

It became clear that the almost complete dependence of the university on the Ministry was not enough.

Private education would enter through the back door and this was the aim of the Diamantopoulou law.

What does self-government mean?

Self-government - which everyone praises - means one thing alone: full financial and administrative autonomy.

All matters of administration, organization of teaching and research, and allocation of funds must be decided by those who know the purpose and needs of education, i.e. the academic community.

The State should determine the financial framework, the general policies and the total number of students.

Beyond that the Minister has no business dealing with enrolments in schools, appointments and promotions of academics or teaching and research priorities.

These practices were carried out for decades by right-wing politicians who routinely accused the left of statism.

The aim of the radical left on the contrary is to weaken the state and transfer its powers to society.

I should also add a comment on the nouveau riche and boorish character of the Diamantopoulou legislation. It imposes, with an impoverished pride, the participation of foreign academics in departmental evaluation committees, appointments and promotions.

I have thus witnessed many tragicomic situations: academics from unknown universities and with no academic record or relation to the evaluated subject treating clearly superior Greek colleagues with the demeanour of colonialist supervisors.

I've seen reviews by people whose knowledge of Greek doesn't allow them to read the works of those being evaluated.

I have heard assessors saying that the only thing that interests them - because this is what their sponsors have requested - is to throw out the student organisations from the universities.

Even worse, I have heard Greek colleagues begging "outsiders" to join the appointment and promotion committees, which could not be constituted without external members.

The supposed meritocracy of measure leads to the humiliation of colleagues and creates relationships of patronage. The law expresses the ideology of those who are ignorant about education and believe that in America dollars grow on trees.

Full and effective self-government is thus the first and main objective of a radical overhaul of higher education. We need a new form of institutional imagination to pull us out of traditional party statism and newly established market fanaticism.

Trust in localism and emphasizing the importance of community and the common good, must be the principles of a democratic society in the 21st century.

Trust in those who work and know the university and a gradual transfer of powers from the state to the community.

However we also have the responsibility to consider and put in action a new definition of the common good which has greatly suffered recently with a barrage of transformations of "the public interest" which has ended up being defined as the interest of "public" figures.

The university is the most suitable space to imagine and implement a new narrative for democracy and a just society in our century. The success of the new Greek university will signal change in general. If not now, when?

Here we come to the crucial question: "What is a university and what does it need?"

It is the new leadership’s big responsibility to start, as it has correctly promised, a national consultation both within and outside the university about the soul and spirit of our house.

Because the university is the home of every country, and when it is tidy and beautiful, the family flourishes.

And it is mainly the work of academics and not the State to put our house in order.

This article was originally published in Greek at efysn.gr 


[1] This part refers to the recent protests by establishment academics and right-wing politicians against the Syriza government law abolishing various measures of the earlier “Diamantopoulou Act” which enforced various demands of the troika. Some 150 protesters assembled in Syntagma protesting the law introduced by Education Minister Aristides Baltas in early May. 

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