Tag Archives: Greek universities

Democracy’s last laugh

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Ahead of the May general elections in the UK, Liberal Democrat leader — and soon-to-be British deputy prime minister – Nick Clegg said the UK faced Greek-style “economic, political and social disruption” if the new government could not “find a way to persuade people” to accept drastic public spending cuts. He made a lot of people laugh then. Last week, a large group of students took over the complex housing the headquarters of the Conservative Party, the senior partner in the coalition government, to protest the sharp rise in university tuition fees triggered by the cuts Clegg had spoken about. Nobody’s laughing now.

Greece is acutely familiar with student protests and arguments about the cost of tertiary education but there are several elements to the British youngsters’ action that should make Greeks sit up and think.

About 50,000 students took to London’s streets last Wednesday to protest the Conservative-Liberal government’s decision to raise the ceiling on annual university fees from about 3,000 pounds (3,500 euros) a year to 9,000 pounds (10,600 euros). Students were enraged first of all by the enormity of the rise – to put things into perspective, graduates in the late 1990s didn’t have to pay a penny for tuition. Just over a decade later, they face the prospect of leaving university with debts of almost 30,000 pounds (35,000) euros. The British government’s scheme to allow graduates to pay this through an extra tax that will be levied once they find permanent employment is little comfort to today’s teenagers and 20-somethings: Given the current economic conditions, the prospects of finding such a job are diminishing rapidly. The coalition government’s public spending cuts will lead to almost 500,000 civil servants losing their jobs over the next few years and the situation in the private sector is not encouraging either.

In Greece, the prospect of discussing any kind of financial contribution by university and technical college (TEI) students toward their fees was impossible at the best of times, let alone now that the education budget is being slashed. Here, however, the argument is dominated by sanctimonious academics and bloody-minded student groups who refuse to accept that scant funding is just one of many problems afflicting Greek institutions, none of which made the list of the world’s top 200 universities published by The Times last week. The British students’ fight seems more inspiring compared to the entrenchment of those who hold tertiary education hostage in Greece, as it’s about competing for a better future rather than refusing to let go of a mediocre past.

The British complain, for instance, that they’re being asked to pay three times as much for their education at a time when the state, which last year provided 8 billion pounds (9.4 billion euros) of funding for universities, is slashing its investment in the sector. In other words, they’ll have to pay more for an inferior product. So, it’s difficult for young people to accept they have to do their bit for fiscal discipline. “There is an appetite for financial rigor, so long as it reinforces recognizable moral principles,” claims Charles Moore of the pro-Conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper, but there doesn’t seem to be anything very moral or principled about putting tertiary education – one of the main arteries pumping new blood to the heart of the economy – beyond the reach of the less wealthy.

It can only be galling for students struggling to put themselves through university to hear Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor, George Osborne, claim: “We’re all in this together” when they talk about their drastic cuts. The students ask: How can Cameron, Osborne or any of the 22 of 29 cabinet ministers who are millionaires feel any solidarity with those who have to deal with the impact of their austerity measures? Echoing the feeling of complete detachment between politicians and the public that has become familiar in Greece, British daily The Independent wrote in its editorial of the student protest: “The fury on display seemed to contain other strands, such as a sense of ‘them and us,’ and the conviction that direct action was the only way to convey the desired message to those in power.”

Despite the siege of Conservative Pary headquarters, the main target of the students’ anger was Clegg, who had warned of a fierce reaction to unfair cuts but seemed incapable of heeding his own advice. Students were enraged by the Lib Dem leader, because he made tuition fees one of the top issues in his election campaign. He promised he would “implacably oppose” any attempt to increase the cost of studying but his supposed principled stand buckled soon after the students helped put him in office. Last week’s protest was the just the beginning of an effort to remind Clegg and his colleagues of elected officials’ obligations. “This was the first step in holding politicians to account and using the democratic powers in our control in order to win our case,” said Aaron Porter, the head of the National Union of Students (NUS).

The NUS has indicated it will adopt a so-called “decapitation” strategy, which will see students target the constituencies of Clegg and other Liberal Democrats in the run-up to the next elections with the aim of unseating them. It’s in their embracing of the potency of democracy and their determination to invert the pyramid, so the real power lies with those who cast the ballots, not those who amass them, that the British students demand Greeks’ attention. Greek voters got a taste last Sunday of what it feels like to no longer accept politicking, when independent candidates Giorgos Kaminis and Yiannis Boutaris were elected mayors of Athens and Thessaloniki, respectively. Although they were endorsed by PASOK, the ruling party’s support was so feeble it actually helped both men appear true lone riders promising a different set of values rather than members of the traditional political herd who are bound by commitments to the party.

The British students, aided by the verve of youth, have reacted to betrayal in an instant. For Greek voters, disorientated and disenfranchised by blind party allegiances and years of broken promises, the process has been much slower. Yet the victories of Kaminis and Boutaris are signs that a new way of thinking can emerge: one that dispenses with the constraints of the past and the fear of the unknown and which imbues voters with the belief that they have the power to punish the layabouts, the liars and the crooks. So, the British students and the Greek people face the same challenge: to find a way of soaking up this moment of enlightment and harnessing the power of democracy. If they manage it, they could have the last laugh.




Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

This weekend marks one year since Alexis Grigoropoulos, a 15-year-old schoolboy, was shot dead by a policeman in central Athens. People will commemorate his passing in different ways: some peaceful, some, inevitably, violent. But the truth is that beyond the teenager’s family and friends, no Greek has the right stake a claim to this boy’s memory. As a country, we’ve failed to mourn his death by acknowledging the questions it posed. As a society, we’ve failed to honor his life by making things better.

Wherever we had the chance to learn and improve since last December, we spurned it: the trial of the policeman who shot Grigoropoulos has yet to take place, the secondary education system that Alexis was part of remains a mess, the tertiary sector that he may have graduated to is at war with itself, we continue to show inexplicable tolerance to those who hijack and abuse democracy while the state and its citizens, particularly the younger ones, still stand opposite each other rather than side by side.

The first thing that needed to happen after the shooting was for Epaminondas Korkoneas the special guard who fired the gun, and Vassilis Saraliotis, the other officer on duty with him, to face trial as swiftly as possible. This would have, to some extent, assuaged suspicions that Korkoneas and Saraliotis will not face the full force of the law. Also, it would have cleared up exactly what happened on the night of December 6, 2008, in Exarchia. The doubt, the theories and counter-theories only inflame a volatile situation.

The trial has now been put off from December 15 to January 20, more than 13 months after the original incident. This is a catastrophic failure by authorities who should understand that justice must be swift and blind when someone entrusted to enforce or uphold the law is suspected of breaking it. It’s further confirmation of the disintegration of the Greek justice system, where few people now have hope of finding anything resembling justice due to the crumbling facilities and a huge backlog of cases.

A year on from Grigoropulos’s death, Greece’s youth – from high school to university – is still ensnared in an education system where the only thing that’s permanent is that everything is temporary. This was summed up by the recent fiasco over franchise colleges. Days before being ousted from power, New Democracy granted operating licenses to 33 institutions only for the new PASOK government to take them back a few weeks later. Both parties are guilty of toying with the education system, which should have always been excluded from their political games.

In the meantime, parents continue to spend money – roughly 750 million euros a year – on private tuition schools and home tutoring in the hope of securing an education for their children that state schools, where more appears to be written on the walls than in children’s books, seem increasingly unable to provide. Teachers complain, justifiably, about a lack of investment but money alone will not revive public education. As long as teachers and students use it for their own political ends by calling strikes and sit-ins, the sector is destined to wilt in the shadow of apathy cast by the very people supposed to nurture it.

At university level, many lecturers and students opt to live in the comfort zone rather than accept that the failure to assess themselves, to improve standards and to take on the challenge of independent or private colleges is starving their institutions of the academic oxygen they need to survive. Sensing this lack of courage, the minority has taken over. Last week, vandals ransacked Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University and a group of non-students physically assaulted a professor at the Athens University of Economics and Business. Academics at Athens Law School claim they were threatened to keep the campus open this weekend despite fears it would be used rioters. Small groups of people, hiding behind the shield of university asylum – which nobody has the guts to review – are now holding Greek universities hostage.

Faced with this deteriorating situation, those with authority choose the path of least resistance. University rectors, often fearing for their physical well being, turn a blind eye or shift the blame onto the government, which, fearing a populist backlash, also dodges its responsibility. This was highlighted last Thursday when Deputy Education Minister Yiannis Panaretos said PASOK has no intention of intervening over the failure of the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) to prevent its computer terminals being used to update the Athens branch of the anti-capitalist news network Indymedia. “We live in a free society,” was his response.

This is the coward’s way out. It underlines how little faith we have in our democracy and how weak-willed we are when it comes to upholding its values. Indymedia, which brands itself as a source of independent news, has a right to exist as much as any mainstream media site but the fact that this website is run from computers paid for by taxpayers and installed for educational purposes is beyond comprehension. It’s the equivalent of an Athens bus driver using his vehicle to take his family on holiday.

As a society, we’ve allowed the few to dictate the terms by which our institutions, and our lives, are run. We’ve been too afraid to argue that rights also come with responsibilities. We’ve been too timid to champion a free society but at the same time prevent a free-for-all. Nowhere is this more evident than in Exarchia, where a relatively small group of anarchists and hooligans sets the tone. Not knowing how to deal with them, the state responds with brute force, prompting residents this week to threaten legal action against police because of what they see as heavy handed measures.

Greeks, particularly the younger ones, see this and form the impression that they live in an oppressive state, disregarding that in their country rules are not there to be enforced but to single out the fools that actually follow them. And while they rage against a non-existent authority, nobody takes the time to realize that it’s the absence of the state, the lack of enforceable rules and the dearth of respect for each other that’s the actual source of oppression. This is the reason why justice is compromised, our schools are sources of stagnation, our universities are turning in on themselves and our streets have become battlegrounds.

All of us had 12 months to put at least some of this right and we’ve done nothing. That’s why the last year has turned out to be just like Alexis Grigoropoulos’s life: lost.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on December 4, 2009.