Students from across Greece protested in Athens on Thursday against the planned introduction of private universities, a reform that has riled the country’s higher education community.

Some 15,000 students demonstrated in the capital, police said.

Around 150 university faculties around Greece are being occupied by students as part of a protest now in its fifth week.

“(Public) universities are already underfunded,” said Eleni Iatrou, an agronomy student at the university of the Peloponnese who travelled to Athens for the rally.

“If private universities also start offering degrees, state funding for public universities will fall even further,” she told AFP.

Under the plan, private non-profit universities will begin taking applications in September 2025.

Many university professors also oppose private institutions, which the students argue will offer lower entry requirements in return for hefty fees.

“There is no guarantee of quality at private universities and the cost of studying will rise,” said Alexandra Balantina, a musicology professor at the Ionian university of Corfu.

Some 200 professors signed a petition this week condemning the government’s “malicious” efforts to overcome resistance to the reform, and refused to participate in online exams held in faculties where students are staging sit-ins.

The government says the reform will enable Greek public universities to enter into partnerships with prestigious foreign academic institutions, improving their international appeal.

It has pledged to introduce strict rules for the way private institutions function.

Currently, foreign colleges operating in Greece can only grant professional diplomas, not full degrees.

‘Neglected’ education sector 

Kyriakos Pierrakakis, the minister in charge of education, has called the reform “taboo-breaking” and dismissed opponents as a “minority”.

The ministry has said the overhaul, which it hopes to enshrine into law by the end of February, will keep thousands of Greek students from leaving the country to study in other European and American universities.

It calculates that more than 40,000 Greeks are currently studying abroad.

Critics say a number of Greek universities have already created such partnerships on their own initiative, and the state has chronically neglected public education.

Dimitra Hatzivassili, a 23-year-old studying to be a nurse at the university of Thessaly, said the reform was just one of many privatisation initiatives by the Greek conservative government, which has been in power since 2019.

Public Greek universities are plagued by run-down infrastructure, political party meddling in student affairs, and random violence and vandalism.

According to the World Bank, Greece spent 7.1 percent of its government budget on education in 2020, the lowest percentage in at least 25 years.

Kostas Stathopoulos, a 24-year-old law student, said the introduction of private universities would exacerbate youth unemployment in Greece and favour graduates from wealthy families.

“The jobs market won’t be able to absorb the number (of graduates),” he said.

Stathopoulos was one of 18 students detained by police on Monday after the force tried to end a university sit-in in the northeastern city of Komotini.

Successive efforts by previous conservative governments to reform higher education in Greece have failed owing to student protests, many of them marred by violence.

Source: AFP