Before the sun had risen over Thessaloniki on Wednesday, Stergios Grigoriou and his fellow students had surrounded the Greek metropolis’s main university site and barricaded every entrance to it.
The act of defiance was not a one-off. In a country where protest politics reign large, students are on a mission: to overturn a bill that, in the name of bringing order to unruly universities, foresees the creation of disciplinary councils and a special campus police force. “Our demand is simple. The educational bill has to be withdrawn,” said Grigoriou. “It’s a repressive law that far from serving our needs only serves the fake needs of a conservative few.”
In his third year of a business administration course, the 20-year-old admits he now spends more time “on the frontline” than behind his books. But he is far from alone. Nationwide there have been growing student protests against the legislation, which is seen as rolling back rights gained since the restoration of democracy in 1974.
With MPs due to vote on the bill late on Thursday, following three days of heated debate, demonstrators clashed with riot police in Athens and Thessaloniki as opposition against the centre-right government’s attempt to overhaul the sector intensified.
Inside the 300-seat House tensions were also high as the main opposition leader, Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras, slammed the administration for using the pandemic to pass unacceptable laws. Prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis insisted it was not the police but democracy that will be installed in colleges. “The aim is to give back public universities to their natural occupants,” he told the chamber.
One of Europe’s smaller countries, Greece has 24 state universities and more than 600,000 students, in a reflection of how tertiary education is seen as a lever to social mobility. But chaos also abounds. Tales of lawlessness on Greek campuses – particularly in Athens – are legion, attributed in part to a law that long prohibited police from entering university grounds, in memory of those killed in 1973 when the colonels’ regime violently crushed an uprising at the Athens Polytechnic.
Although repealed by Mitsotakis within weeks of assuming office in 2019, the legacy of the so-called asylum law lingers. In urban centres, campuses previously known as no-go zones for police have become synonymous with crime and decay. Drug peddling, sexual assault and the presence of anarchists and other anti-establishment groups on university grounds have all been blamed for driving ever more Greeks to seek higher education abroad.
“We hear of outrageous transgressions of security, even professors being attacked in lecture theatres, and of vandalism and theft,” said Prof Kevin Featherstone, who teaches contemporary Greek studies at the London School of Economics. “Asylum rights born in a different era have been grossly abused to the detriment of all.”
Criticism of the bill has focused on the plans for an unarmed police force. Empowered to arrest students perceived to be involved in criminal activity, the 1,030-strong body of specially trained men and women would be able to call in riot police if deemed necessary. For leftwing parties who have viewed the asylum law as sacrosanct – and are mindful of the role of campuses as recruiting grounds – the prospect of any police presence comes perilously close to erasing freedom of expression.
“No country in the world has police on university sites,” said Syriza’s education spokesperson Nikos Filis, noting that the entire academic community and even the police were against the proposals. “This is the government taking its law and order agenda to new heights. Why not reinstate the security guards who were fired when Greece signed up to [EU-mandated] austerity during the economic crisis? A police force will simply add fuel to the fire.”
For Niki Kerameus, Athens’ education minister and the architect of the reforms, the legislation far exceeds the issue of police surveillance limited to only “four or five” universities, she says, where the problem of security is acute. “It’s not a horizontal measure and in time the body may even be removed if there is no longer need for it,” she told the Guardian. “That said, it’s simply not true to say that elsewhere police don’t intervene when criminal incidents occur on campuses, because they do.”
At 40, the Harvard-educated lawyer is among the youngest ministers in the government and has dreams of Greece becoming an educational hub in south-east Europe. To get there, she says, the country finally has to grapple with the perennial problems that have plagued higher education. “Our tertiary education system has tremendous potential, proven by the fact that so many of our graduates go on to study at the best universities abroad,” she said. “We just need to unleash that potential. And to do that we need to take certain actions.”
In a first, the bill deals with the phenomenon of “eternal students” – 40% of Greek undergraduates continue their studies into middle age – as well as faculty evaluation and raising university admission standards.
“This is 2021,” said the minister, insisting that disciplinary committees were necessary because rules had never been enforced. “We have to deal with issues and take action where there is offence, be that plagiarism or destruction of university property. It’s plain common sense and long overdue. This isn’t about right of left. It’s about what is best for our universities and future generations.”
Under Kerameus’s watch, undergraduate courses in English have begun to be taught as part of a drive to attract foreign students and forge partnerships with leading universities in the US and elsewhere. But that, too, has drawn criticism from the opposition, who accuse the government of being hellbent on privatising tertiary education at the expense of the public nature of universities.
Not all students are opposed. Katerina Tsitomenea, a law undergraduate at the University of Athens, agrees the changes are overdue. “There are some strange types on campus and you don’t always feel secure,” she said. “I have friends who study law in the UK and I’m always surprised at how different the environment is at universities there.”
For Featherstone, who sat on Greece’s National Council for Research and Technology as its first foreign member, the furore is tantamount to a culture war over how Greece should develop.
“What we are seeing is part of a long-term conflict between two sides of Greek society. One is international-looking, seeks meritocracy, has liberal values and is aspirational for Greece to compete in the world,” he said. “The other is insular, fearful, non-meritocratic, dismisses excellence and wants academic institutions to operate on very different values. It’s a culture war through and through.”