Sokratis Koniordos: Greek Universities in Permanent Crisis

Sokratis Koniordos: Greek Universities in Permanent Crisis
Sokratis Koniordos, University of Crete

In Greece there are currently 23 state universities offering degree and post-graduate courses, and specializations in a large gamut of subjects. At the same time the country “boasts” world (per capita) levels of student migration, most of which is directed towards EU countries; primarily the UK. The opening up and multiplication of the universities, in common with the many counties that adopted the human capital logic of OECD sponsored socio-economic development, has been a gradual process that has intensified since the early 1960s, but particularly in the 1970s and after. The opening up of the universities has often been seen as a response to popular demand for education, which in Greece drew on memories (invented or real) of ancient splendor, more recent experiences of survival and upward mobility in adverse times (e.g. the Phanariots), the forging of the Greek nation, or the authority that scientific status bestowed to its holders. These have been fused with people’s imagery that considered and considers university-level education as an all-important path towards non-manual work, itself considered an anathema, and social elevation.

The financing of this growth has been achieved by partly drawing from the state budget, but also from foreign, mostly EU funding. Indeed, there is no university in Greece which does not display the mandatory boards that mention the EU’s role in constructing buildings, equipping them with virtually all necessities, and paying for salaries too, albeit for a limited and set period. Indeed, many departments, faculties and universities could only be established with a 75% EU contribution on top of a 25% national contribution. Among the beneficiaries one should not fail to include the country’s three departments of sociology!

In general, one must note that university expansion has meant the creation of inexpensive departments to meet the high demand for higher education. In this way the political class met the demand of its voter-clients and the crisis encountered by taking in EU money. In a sense the crisis has been contained, but not actually resolved as we saw when further financing of universities had to draw on national funding sources. Thus, contract teaching staff in universities continually receive their meager salaries six or more months after they start working. In between they survive on subsidies from families even though they are often over 30 years of age, which does real wonders for their morale. New appointments, then, are delayed by at least two years due to the unavailability of resources. In addition, university teachers’ salaries have been frozen for about six years now. Another example of the consequences of the under-financing of higher education is the failure, for more than a year now (despite announcements that “the problem has been resolved”), to pay electronic journal subscription with the result that access to them has been blocked, which is not very good for research or even teaching.

The university entry examination system, as it has developed over the years, has been particularly hard on students who have to pass very competitive entry examinations. This is especially true in the highly rated medical and engineering departments and schools, in which the entrance mark is often set at 18 or 19 points out of 20. No doubt, those that enter Greek universities are good and even very good students, but the entrance system leaves out many talented youths. What happens after four, five or more years of study is another matter.

In actual practice, once one is admitted, it is hard not to obtain a degree in a Greek university. Students have the mandatory right to take examinations a number of times so as to make sure they pass a course – at the end of the semester in which it has been taught and again in the September examination period. Thereafter, in the case of some courses, they have the right to be examined in a third examination period. The possibility of repeating the same examinations goes hand in glove with the widespread practice of allowing students to take an inordinate large number of courses per semester, particularly so in the last year of studies. The end result is that students who register for two and sometimes three overlapping courses cannot attend them. As class attendance is not obligatory, the whole system cannot but find refuge in repeating examinations as the major assessment tool. This is also the result of a curriculum that is restricted to what may be included in one or two textbooks (often dated) and to student class participation which, by definition, is impossible to monitor – especially in classes in which the material is delivered in lecture-form to large audiences.

The situation is further exacerbated by vociferous calls by some left-wing student groups to resist work “intensification”, a euphemism for resisting studying “a lot”! The dominant more middle-of-the-road student groups, which are open front organizations of the major political parties, add their voices, less vociferously it is true, by using their block vote in the elections of department chairs, deans and rectors as bargaining chip. In fact, under the current system of elections, students command an exceptionally high percentage of votes in university bodies –up to 40%, and, as already indicated, it is most usually a block-vote. This means that student political organizations play a key role in who is elected to these posts and heavily influence the policies that are pursued, e.g. repeat examinations, the largely non-compulsory attendance in classes, the number of courses students are allowed to take per semester, who enters post-graduate studies, among other issues.

Then, the officially unrecognized – because then something would have to be done and this would blow the whistle on the quality of indigenous universities and, by implication, those associated with them – yet widespread cheating practices, only further discredits university education. Hence, by graduation the most able students have become aspiring public sector employees of indifferent conscience, on the lookout for the most advantageous, and definitely politically connected, opportunities to settle into the various state bureaucracies.

The current economic crisis has brought about another heavy blow against the universities, exacerbating their already problematic situation. As part of the deal reached with the EU and the International Monetary Fund for the country’s bail out, the effective direct cuts in salaries for university teachers will be in the region of 23-25%. To this, one must add the reduction in the purchasing power of salaries due to a 4% increase in VAT that affects items of mass consumption so that the real salary reduction will be more like 30%. But, this last crisis might have positive outcomes but only if it would lead to a solution to the financial deficits (much doubted, say by Paul Krugman); only if it would release people from their breast-feeding and dependence on clientelism and partyocracy (but to become mature one must also want it); only if it would awaken intellectuals to assume their critical role (possible, but that would require an improbable cultural revolution ); only if it would lead to a socially planned shift from the dominance of neoliberal markets, for which the economists are largely responsible (as David MacKenzie has demonstrated), and which politicians find irresistible (as Michel Mann has shown), coupled with a shift towards some measure of social justice. In the meantime, since these and other “ifs” are difficult to realize, we may expect that various “neutralization” mechanisms will unleash small-scale and low-level corruption, but they will be justified as a response and even a defense against high-level and large-scale corruption (as Mark Granovetter has indicated) that has brought Greece to its knees. Such social processes may also embrace the universities. An upsurge of amoral familism (studied by Edward Banfield and considered to fit the social situation not only in Sicily, but in Greece and other areas too) unfortunately seems to be a most likely possibility given the loss of confidence in alternatives.

Universities in Crisis, 11/05/10