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Greek bailout will hit universities

Alexandros Papalexandris

Education reform in many EU countries entails significant budget cuts and a search for alternative ways of funding universities. The situation in Greece, however, is much graver: universities are struggling to stay afloat.

In May 2010, the Eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund approved an economic rescue package for Greece involving bailout loans of €110 billion. A year later, in July 2011, Eurozone leaders agreed a new €109bn bailout for Greece to prevent its debt crisis from metastasising across the continent. But the cost of these bailouts are momentous for the Greek people, their way of life and the social benefits they are used to enjoying.

The rescue deals require Greece to adopt austerity measures worth more than €40bn between 2011 to 2015 and to reduce its deficit to controllable levels. Greece’s education system is among the areas hardest hit.

The bailout plan has meant significant budget cuts for universities. Reduced public funding—by up to half, say university officials—has hit procurement and operating expenses, and substantial wage cuts have been introduced to make further cost savings. Data from OECD and Eurostat put academic staff wages in Greece among the EU’s lowest before a 2009-10 reform that cut wages by another 11.7 per cent. A further fall in academic wages is expected after the medium-term fiscal strategic programme for 2012-15 takes effect. The Greek parliament’s vote for the programme in June aroused opposition from the academic community and caused several prominent researchers to seek academic positions abroad.

Most of Greece’s universities rely heavily on staff working on short-term contracts in teaching, research and administration. The rescue package slashed positions among temporary administrative staff and cut the number of contract academic staff for the academic year 2010-11 by 15 to 20 per cent.

As a result, several courses have been dropped from the curriculum. Some universities have asked their temporary academic staff to teach for a fraction of their original fee or even for free, just to preserve the academic programme.

The opening of new academic positions has been suspended, and the appointment of newly elected academic staff to their universities has been delayed. The bottom line is that only one person will be hired for every 10 who retire from the public sector in the year 2011, changing to one for every five in 2012. The appointment of the most recent batch of academics to their universities took up to two years. More than 800 elected academics are waiting to be appointed to their university and this number is expected to swell to 1,200 by the end of the year. This issue, coupled with the fact that more than 500 academics have retired during 2010 and that this number is also expected to rise in 2011, paints an even bleaker picture for Greece’s higher education.

It is hoped that these crucial problems in the education system will be offset, at least in part, by ambitious higher-education legislation that is expected to be voted on soon by Parliament. The Bill aims to increase the autonomy of universities, enhance their educational potential and make them more outward looking. But it also reduces their number and paves the way for a further reduction in their budget from government.

This educational re-build is being called the Kallikratis plan—named after one of the two fifth-century BC Greek architects who designed the Parthenon and re-built much of ancient Athens. It will take effect by merging many of the existing universities and closing down several departments that either do not score highly on student preferences, or are considered to be redundant.

Even though the educational Kallikratis has not yet materialised, for the academic year 2011-12 there is a provision for enrolling only 74,440 university students in Greece—a cut of 10,250 admissions. Twenty-five departments, mainly at polytechnics or technological universities, have already closed down. Without doubt, the Greek educational system is in peril.

The reforms that have been imposed on Greece are momentous and are taking place at an unprecedented speed, at least by Greek standards. In this respect, several academics, as well as a large part of the Greek community, oppose these changes, proclaiming that they will undermine the education that students receive and the autonomy of Greece’s universities.

All that said, the situation in Greece might present a golden opportunity for the improvement of past evils, and academic research and education could set the basis for economic growth so many are calling for. Therefore, it is the hope of the academic and the Greek community at large that this opportunity will not be squandered, and that higher education will not be sacrificed on the altar of cost reduction.

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Alexandros Papalexandris is a lecturer at the Department of Business Administration at the Athens University of Economics and Business.