During the ongoing five-year economic storm that has buffeted Greece, the country’s higher education sector has been particularly hard hit. Public funding has been cut, salaries have been scaled back to 1995 levels, and students throughout the country have protested against the planned closures of many academic facilities.
New reform proposals are on the table with mergers and closures looming as the country looks to stabilise the higher education sector and prevent further brain drain.
Higher education consolidation
The latest reforms include Athena, a retrenchment plan proponents describe as a needed upgrade and consolidation of public universities. Education Minister Konstantinos Arvanitopoulos has stated that Greece has too many institutions (for a country of 11 million people, 24 in the university sector and 16 in the technological sector) and the country must merge schools to reduce costs.
Under the Athena plan, which is said to begin implementation this month, campuses and departments in more than a dozen cities will be phased out. Mergers and closures will result in a new federal university based in Athens, named after Adamantios Korais. Institutions said to be affected first include: University of Central Greece in Lamia, University of Western Greece in Agrinio, University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki, University of Western Macedonia in Kozani, International Hellenic University, University of the Peloponnese, University of the Aegean, Democritus University of Thrace, University of Thessalythe, Agricultural University of Athens, Athens University of Economics and Business (AUEB), Panteion University, Harokopio University, and University of Piraeus.
According to Arvanitopoulos, the broad goal is to combat overspecialisation in majors with little or no relevance to needs of the economy. The Athena plan aims to reduce the number of higher education departments from the current 520 to 350, using ten main criteria:
- Physical size and structure;
- Geographic location;
- Subject area and curricular redundancy;
- Quality and sustainability;
- Ratio of students/academics;
- Number of student applications;
- Condition of their existing infrastructure;
- Research activity and international recognition;
- Employability of graduates;
- Doctorates awarded.
Opponents of the Athena plan say that the loss of jobs in outlying cities will harm those economies, and job and budget cuts will make it impossible for Greece to attract top academic talent. Greek researcher and political science PhD Leonidas Karakatsanis sees himself as a prime example. He recently told Bloomberg.com:
“My initial plan was to spend some years abroad and return back to Greece. Now it seems like it’s impossible to return to Greece. I’m starting to imagine myself living abroad for the next 15 to 20 years.”
Political columnist Nikos Xydakis wrote a critique of Athena, asking, “Is there some lofty plan to boost the economy in the long run or a desire to elevate intellectual standards governing this reform, or is it solely about cost-cutting? Can the country’s secondary educational system support these changes? What will the role of technical colleges be? What kind of productive model and what standard of formal education do we envision for Greece in the future?”
Current Greek environment
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) “Education at a Glance 2012” report, Greece has the highest rate of unemployment among 25-29 year-olds with a tertiary degree, at 13.2%. The bleak job outlook is fueling demand among Greek students to study abroad. As reported on ICEF Monitor in August 2012, the percentage of Greek undergrads who report wanting to study abroad has risen 162%.
However, recruiters and institutions know that desire and ability often clash in the real world. Though demand to study abroad is up, actual numbers have fallen – 22,000 Greek students were studying abroad in 2012, compared to 33,500 in 2011, and 34,200 in 2010. The falloff is almost certainly due to the financial pinch being felt by Greek families.
While more Greek students are staying home, Greek universities are having trouble attracting students from outside the country. The 2012 OECD study found that 78.7% of the country’s foreign students are from neighbouring countries, while only 20.7% are from the OECD’s other 33 member states.
With frequent shutdowns due to strikes, uncertainty about structural changes, and no sure end in sight to budget and staff cuts, the standing of the Greek higher education sector is taking a beating. Compounding all those difficulties is a set of social and political factors that has complicated matters for international students.
According to the international NGO Human Rights Watch, xenophobic violence has reached alarming proportions in Greece, with gangs specifically targeting foreigners. After Human Rights Watch issued a report on the issue, the government announced plans to establish a new police unit to deal with racial violence.
How will Greece move forward?
Some answers to what Greece hopes to achieve in the future come from Professor George Panayiotakis, President of the Greek Rector’s Conference. In an International Focus newsletter on higher education in Europe, he was asked what his three wishes were for the nation:
“My first wish would be to invest in human resources – keep established and young researchers in the country. My second wish would be to attract funding, so that we can educate young people. And my final wish would be to regain stability.”
Panayiotakis also suggested that the higher education sector needed a stable legal framework within which to operate. He explained that while it’s inevitable that some departments would close, new programmes of studies were needed. In his opinion, the universities themselves should have the main decisive role in restructuring the higher education map in Greece.
He also has hopes that greater internationalisation can help. He would like to see the Greek tertiary sector look not just to India and China, but to the nearby eastern regions of the Balkans, Turkey, and the Caucasus as well as further afield to Brazil and Argentina.
Ultimately, the future of Greek higher education depends upon the austerity programme, and what happens on that front going forward. The main priority for Greece’s creditors is slashing costs. With university operating budgets so severely depressed that some school buildings even lack heat, the future is uncertain at best.
A faint glimmer of hope came just days ago when Greece’s finance ministry announced that in January the government recorded its first primary surplus in years. Primary surplus is based on revenue minus expenditure excluding interest costs. It was produced mainly by cuts to public spending, but in economic circles primary surplus is commonly thought of as a measure of fiscal sustainability.
But even with creditors momentarily appeased, the pain in Greece is by no means over. The government plans to impose more than €13 billion of austerity measures in 2013-2014, which are expected to keep the country in recession for a sixth consecutive year.