Greeks march to save public higher education

ATHENS, Greece — Pro-education forces throughout Greece geared up this week for an all-out offensive of marches and demonstrations to block a parliamentary vote on privatizing the higher education system. The vote was set for Jan.10, just as the PWW was going to press.

In Parliament, both reformist/social-democratic and conservative forces were trying to push through a vote amending Article 16 of the Greek Constitution, which guarantees the public nature of higher education.

Article 16 stipulates that higher education is publicly owned and free for everyone. The social-democratic (PASOK) and conservative (New Democracy) parties, following the directives of the European Union as set out in the Bologna Treaty of 1999, have been collaborating to amend this article (as well as others) in order to permit the establishment of privately owned universities whose degrees would be fully recognized by the Greek state.

Although private universities and colleges have been operating in Greece for years, the degrees they confer lack universal recognition.

Both the previous PASOK government and current New Democracy government systematically neglected and undermined public education, paving the way in the public consciousness for the approval of the amendment. New Democracy, for example, was elected on an “education platform” that promised 5 percent of the state budget for education. Yet on their watch state expenditure for education has dropped from 3.6 percent to 3.2 percent.

If the amendment to Article 16 were to pass, it would open the doors to mass privatization of the higher education system, effectively assimilating it into the global capitalist system of pay as you go. Universities would compete to gain funding from the state and multinational corporations.

Amendment supporters argue that placing education in private hands would “upgrade” it, “make it more competitive” and stop the brain drain of Greek youth to other countries. The reality is that education would be drastically downgraded and universities would become commercial enterprises.

A two-tier university system would be developed, with a few select universities for those who can afford it and many more downgraded commercial enterprises where working-class youth could “buy” a degree of questionable value, despite their hard work and sacrifice. Those who could afford to would continue to be educated abroad.

Mass social struggle here in Greece has effectively delayed the implementation of many neoliberal education reforms that have already been put in place in other European countries. The marches, mobilizations and school takeovers by the students starting last summer grew larger and more dynamic in the fall (see the students’ web site www.mathites.gr/photos.html for photos) as the government refused to back down and its hypocritical calls for dialogue with educators and students ended in the tear-gassing of demonstrators.

Collective action was planned this week all over Greece. A Greek-wide day of protest was planned for Wednesday, the 10th, where rallies were to be held in over 40 major cities and islands. Organizing for this day has taken on a significant mass character as students, parents and teachers planned to hit the streets with trade unionists, farmers and retirees to protect the people’s right to free, universal, public education.

The movement will not stop there, however. The PASOK/New Democracy duo are promoting similar measures at all levels of education, paving the way for full-scale privatization of the Greek educational system.

laurajopetricola@yahoo.com