A struggle against neoliberal reforms to Higher Education in Greece has come to a head this week, writes Kleanthis Antoniou.
For the last two months, from the very beginning of the new semester, students in Greece have been taking to the streets, protesting against the government’s new education policies.
Someone would say this is predictable in Greece. Every now and then, there is a dispute about education in Greece: university students march and occupy, schools organize occupations, often at the same time, while education workers usually support the student struggles. But why is that?
Neoliberal education policy, in particular associated with the Bologna process, started in Europe in the early 2000s. Education ‘reform’ had already started in the UK a bit earlier. The characteristic developments are the creation of extra tiers in the education system, distinguishing between ‘big’ and ‘small’ degrees, the initiation of fees, and the simultaneous promotion of private institutions.
Greek governments have tried to establish the above and have failed repeatedly. In 2006 and 2007, the student movement defeated successive reform attempts. In 2008, students rioted after the assassination of a 16-year-old boy by a cop; 2011 brought another movement against a new reform, and so on. Education is a key site of struggle, and every new education minister knows the job is not a long-term position.
SYRIZA tried to ease the tension and behaved as if the student movement was on their side. Sadly, they simultaneously cut education funding and let the universities seek finance in private sources. In response to criticisms, they made frequently argued that, at the least, their position on education was preferable to that of the opposition.
The new government that took power in July 2019 made it clear: education is to be reformed.
And so it began. In its first weeks, the new government cancelled the law of ‘Asylum’. This was a statute that prohibited police and armed forces from entering the universities except after a report of a serious crime. The law had been a symbol for decades of a student movement that determined modern Greek history.
In November 1973, during the period of the Greek military junta (1967-74), a student occupation that lasted only three days managed to gather hundreds of thousands in the university campus of Polytechneio in the centre of Athens. The anniversary on the 17 November is an important date in Greek working-class social memory of how regimes are overthrown. Working-class and student self-organisation had been prohibited for years, but in a few days the people assembled there made plans for a new kind of government and a proletarian regime. For all the shortcomings of the students’ and workers’ organisation, public opinion turned firmly against the military regime when it suppressed the revolt with the use of the army, killing dozens of students.
For that reason, every November, the police makes plans to control the crowd surging the streets on the anniversary. And each year, the student movement is given new reasons to march apart from marking the 1973 revolt, and so tensions begin to rise.
Cops on campus
This year, the government used the hype of the recent election to unleash an attack on squats used by anarchists to host migrants seeking asylum. They use ‘war on terror’ rhetoric to justify assaults to impose the neoliberal policies that they want to impose on future generations.
They were met by the student movement, which remains determined to block the reforms and funding-cuts for public education. The use of police to supress the movement has let the cops off the leash. Many cops are hungry for a chance to beat students with no repercussions from the state: this is the moment they have been waiting for.
The police entered the University of Economics and Business (known as ASOEE) in the centre of Athens and raided all spaces used for political purposes. The University management then claimed to be shocked by the police findings, and decided to suspend all the university activities until 17 November. Which is, of course, the date students tend to pick for their mobilisations.
Students demanded to enter the university and to assemble there, as is their right, and managed to march onto campus. Police followed them inside, and there were dramatic scenes as the police hesitated to beat a crowd of 200 students, chanting partisan songs from the Civil War (1943-9). The students forced their way out and another march was planned for the same day. Even if the movement has been on the streets for the past two months, this march was different.
The heat is on for sure and a lot will become clear the next few days. What is certain is that the students have not backed down and are challenging the government openly. In the last few weeks, there had been growing opposition to occupations and street demonstrations in some of the discussions within the student unions. The latest events have silenced this opposition. There is a great deal of working class support for the students.
An important lesson from this is that the student movement in Greece didn’t maintain its presence because of favourable winds blowing in its direction.
It stood firm because it has held the line on two critical political issues.
The first is its radical politics: the students that mobilise and lead are mainly by an anti-capitalist left that is often dismissed by the wider European left. This part of the movement didn’t wait for SYRIZA to betray it, but prioritised its own agenda, and the working-class movement.
The second is its democratic structure. Any assembly that takes place in a university is deciding democratically with different political views presented and students voting. Any kind of decision (occupation, march, protest) is taken under these circumstances, where 100-400 students in each faculty gather and argue. This has allowed the base of the movement to be easily expressed and bureaucracy to be tackled.
What can the British student movement learn from Greece?
In a few weeks, workers in UK HE institutions will be taking strike action. Their struggle is important for the whole of higher education, and for society more broadly. It is a matter the students must seriously take in their own hands. The British student movement can learn from the independent radical politics and democratic structure of the students in Greece.
Already it has been announced that thousands of police will gather in the centre of Athens for the celebration that lasts for three days (15–17 November), culminating with a march on Sunday. This is not really new: in the period of instability before SYRIZA, the police presence was often similar on these days.
What is new is the students.