Dialogues on the Bicentenary: the education crisis in the Country
In 2021 Greece is celebrating two hundred years from the beginning of the War of Indipendence. On this important occasion we interviewed Professor Nikos Marantzidis from University of Macedonia (PAMAK) in Thessaloniki. Second part of the dialogue, coming soon on Osservatorio Globalizzazione.
Adamántios Koraïs, a Greek humanist inspired by the French Enlightenment, ispraised in Greek literature as Dante in Italy. During the War of Independence, he wrote many pamphlets for the Greeks fighting against the Ottoman Empire. He claimed that the only way to build a prosperous, democratic and free country was by providing education for all. Koraïs, the Greek Pater Patriae, died just before the end of the revolution but his message is still significant. What is the legacy that he and many other heroes of the Greek Revolution left to today’s society?
As a matter of fact the question of “Education for all” has been of concern in Greece for the last 200 years, both from sociological and administrative perspectives. The demand for education has always been high in the country as it was combined with career prospects (often in the public sector) both in Greece and abroad. Initially, the Greek state did not respond, mainly due to costs and different priorities. Since the middle of the 20th century, the demand for university education has risen sharply. Therefore, the Greek student communities abroad flourished. During the 1970s and 1980s, tens of thousands of Greeks emigrated to the Balkans, Italy, France, Great Britain, Germany for study purposes. In fact, Greek student associations in Italy had a very active presence. Many of these students eventually returned back to Greece but many others did not. In the following years, the Greek state enhanced significantly the university training offer, in order to meet the demand on the one hand, but also to stop the student drop-outs that had gradually developed into a large brain drain. In the 1990s, such as in the 2000s, there was a real boom. A large number of university departments and faculties were established, and new universities began to operate.
Greece is one of the countries with the highest percentage of students, compared to their peers worldwide. Nowadays, the demand has shifted to postgraduate studies. Largely due to the increased youth unemployment which in Greece is higher than in other countries, Greek young people are increasingly trying to continue their studies after graduation. Finally, 200 years later, Korais’ vision seems to have been fulfilled, at least to some extent.
Today, however, it seems that the message of the great Greek enlightenment is not so strong. In fact, OECD data show us a systematic reduction from 2012 to 2017 in public investment in education, below the European average. As Professor Joseph Stiglitz also explains, the problem of access to education leads to an increase in inequalities and inevitably compromises future economic growth. How does the current government, led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis approach the issue of public investment in education?
– Although in relation to the demand for free access to education in both secondary and tertiary education, the Greek state has made great strides in these two hundred years, and especially from the 1980s onwards, however, as far as the quality of education provided is concerned, things are not just as well. School education is characterized by a dramatic lack of infrastructure, critical thinking and imagination, and at the same time it is conformist, promotes memorization as a learning method, and imposes an immense amount of teaching material, causing disinterest on the part of students. School is experienced by students as “hell”, “prison” and “waste of time”.
On the other hand, at Greek university things are not much better. The lack of infrastructure is becoming serious, especially in the universities of Athens and Thessaloniki. There is a lack of rooms and rarely all 1st-year students are able to attend a course at the same time. There is a shortage of teaching staff that during the years of the financial crisis of deteriorated dramatically. It is no coincidence that there is not a single Greek university in the top 100 in the world, while in general, the average is not even in the top 500.
In general, the Greek governments do not seem to believe in the promotional power of the university. In fact, the current ruling elites do not seem to have any appreciation for the Greek university and to a large extent behave as if they despise it. Resources for research, teaching and infrastructure are limited or stagnant when the legal framework does not facilitate the flexibility of universities. Resources for research, teaching and infrastructure are limited or stagnant while the legal framework does not facilitate the flexibility of universities. I do not know what Korais would say about all this, but I do not think he would be excited.
Whereas public investment in education is scarce, the use of force by the government in the Greek University has increased dramatically since February 11, 2021, the date on which the current majority, formed by the ruling right-wing “New Democracy” party and the far-right party “Greek Solution”, approved a law that opens to the creation of a special police unit for the “protection of universities”. President Mitsotakis declared that in this way democracy will be brought to universities, but what we have seen so far is the violation of constitutional principles (Article 16 of the Greek Constitution which safeguards universities from violent actions by the state or other institutions), and numerous demonstrations by Greek students often resulted in police violence. In one of your articles, you have written that Greek Universities need freedom and resources. Do we have to wait for the next government to see democratic and just laws to be reestablished?
On this question, one does not know whether to cry or laugh. At a time in which universities have open wounds due to the loss of teaching staff retiring and not being replaced, or choosing to go abroad in order to seek better working conditions, the Greek government thinks that the major problem in universities is lawlessness and violence, therefore decides to hire 1000 special police officers to be placed on the campuses of some universities. In other words, at a time when there is a dramatic shortage of teaching staff, classrooms, laboratories, scholarships and research resources, the Greek government has found resources to pay a thousand people useless to the purpose of education.
I leave aside other issues: the risk of generalised agitation from the presence of police officers in universities, etc. and focus on purely educational ones. Is it possible that while we are gasping to watch the great changes in the university at a global level, we are going back to the 60s and 70s?
There is no doubt that this is a neo-conservative choice intended to show the public that the ‘law and order’ agenda will be implemented at all costs. But the government has made a big mistake because it seems not to know how to read public opinion polls properly. Indeed, the majority of Greek society was initially with the government on this issue. But soon, once the Greeks became aware of the dangers of rampant repression that took place in various areas of Athens (e.g. Nea Smyrni, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki) and the violence that ensued, they distanced themselves. Today only a minority seriously believes that the solution to the problems of the Greek university is to put the police in it. Unfortunately, on this issue, the government is trapped in its ideologies. It will damage universities, the country and eventually the government itself.
Did you have any moments of confrontation with your students or colleagues on the topic? Could you perhaps give us some insight on the Greek academic environment in the last month?
It is rare to find such high rates of agreement in the universities between professors and students. Regardless of political beliefs, the vast majority of the university community sees this law as dangerous to peace on campuses, useless in terms of education and a waste of valuable resources. Anyone who lives the university and has a sober approach to the issues understands that this reform is counterproductive.