Restructuring Higher Education, the Greek way

People familiar with Higher Education in Greece may have heard of the ambitious ministerial plan to restructure tertiary institutions. The plan, which goes by the evocative name Athena (after the Ancient Greek goddess of wisdom), aims to reduce the geographical overdispersal of educational institutions and stimulate academic excellence, we are told. We are also told that it is not about cutting costs.

Interested readers can access a full presentation of the plan here, and comments by the minister himself can be found here. An information bulletin, in a helpful Q&A format, appears to have been widely circulated by the Ministry among media outlets, and was often reproduced verbatim (here’s an example). Before making any further comments, I would like to make it clear that I am in full agreement with the stated aims of the plan: the provision for higher education in Greece has been chaotic, and there are great opportunities to improve coherence and quality in teaching, research and outreach. It is therefore rather unfortunate that the ministerial plan seems to have been inspired by Jim Hacker’s adage, that: “something needs to be done; this is something; therefore it must be done”.

One of my concerns is that, if the Ministry aims to reduce the over-dispersal of academic units, it does so in curious ways. For instance, the institute where I used to teach operated four campuses in four different towns: the plan shuffles academic departments around, calls for the relocation of students, academics and administrators, and ends up with the same four campuses. Elsewhere, it appears that departments are relocated from major cities like Thessaloniki to satellite campuses like Serres, where the minister’s political party incidentally enjoys great electoral strength. Departments of Spanish Language and Literature are merged into Departments of English, presumably because they both deal with foreign languages, but Departments of Slavic and Asiatic Studies remain autonomous. The list of oddities is endless, and while one does not want to accuse the Ministry of planning poorly or grounding their decisions on non-academic considerations, one is surprised by the opacity of information regarding the rationale behind individual changes.

A somewhat more important concern I have relates to the stated goal of creating ‘pockets of excellence’. At the time of writing, there seems to be no published information on how these ‘pockets of excellence’ might be defined, or what their academic status will be. I suspect that the Ministry expects these pockets to emerge bottom-up, after fragmented departments are consolidated into larger academic entities. The minister and his aides constantly remind us that small academic units simply cannot thrive, carefully and somewhat cunningly avoiding discussion of why these units are currently understaffed. In doing so, they remind one of the proverbial patricide who pleaded for the court’s mercy on account of being an orphan. Again, one would like to know if the ministry has any empirical evidence that a quantitative measure (the size of any academic unit) is associated with a qualitative effect (excellence), and what procedures they used to determine the optimal size for each academic unit. I have made repeated attempts to elicit this information, but have not been successful.

Lastly, I would like to posit that the Minister’s good intentions non-withstanding, the plan seems to reveal a fundamental misunderstanding regarding the nature of Higher Education. The University, as understood in the Western world, is an institute of knowledge that must operate independently from outside power structures, like the Church, the State, or big business, to name but a few. This is not to say that it is an entity cut off from the society in which it is embedded; rather it means that it can only produce knowledge when its operation is not determined from the outside. The ministerial plan seems to be grounded on a vision of Higher Education that allows the government to move academic units around the map, much as it moves military units; to determine the content of the curriculum in each academic department, much as it does in primary and secondary education; and to even decide what each academic unit will be designated, just like it christens highways and bridges. The minister’s plan may well restructure Higher Education, but it will morph it into something that is not a University in any sense that I recognize.

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