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Bleak prospects for Greek universities

Universities and academic staff at all levels have been hard hit following the Greek government’s unprecedented (for peacetime) severe austerity measures demanded by the IMF, the Central European Bank and the European Commission in an effort to establish fiscal discipline in the country.
Higher education institutions have been told to cut their academic and maintenance programme budgets by as much as 30%. This target was set by the Education Ministry although the institutions themselves will decide where they will make the economies.
With just 3% of GNP allocated to education, the lowest of the EU’s 27 nations, Greek universities were already suffering from severe under-funding that inevitably stunted their growth.
This year’s reduction, and further cuts expected next year, makes the future look bleak. Many universities will have to reconsider their academic programmes, extra activities and possibly cancel plans for building repairs and renewal of equipment.
The government’s measures are placing an even greater burden on academics. They have not only seen their salaries reduced but are also suffering, like the rest of the people, an unprecedented barrage of rising prices in basic goods: petrol up by 54%, cigarettes by 17%, drinks by almost 70% and all likely to go even higher from 1 July when VAT will rise from the present 21% to 23%, bringing inflation to 5.4%.
As early as January, when the government’s intentions to cut wages, salaries and supplementary benefits in the public sector were announced, the Panhellenic Federation of University Teachers Associations attempted to protect academics from the worst impact of these measures.
In a letter to Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou, the federation pointed out: “Although the salaries in other public sector branches during 2008-2009 rose by 25% to as much as 100% in some cases, such as army officers and judges, the basic salaries of academics had remained unchanged since 2004. As a result, a magistrate receives a monthly salary of EUR2,027 and a lecturer EUR1,055.”
Current academic pay arrangements mean that only 50% of the total amount received is a basic salary. The rest is made up by a variety of supplements such as lesson preparation, conference attendance, travelling, library and research supplements.
The federation said academics would suffer far more disproportionately than other public sector scientific staff and concluded: “We would like to remind you that academic salaries have remained unchanged for the last six years and therefore they have shown effectively a 15% reduction which does not by any means acts as an incentive for young people to pursue an academic career.”
Federation spokesman Stavros Sfindourakis, an assistant professor at the University of Patras with 10 years work experience, took home EUR1,900 per month but now, after cuts to his salary and Christmas and Easter bonuses, he receives less than EUR1,700.
“It is very disheartening,” Sfindourakis said. “They have better salaries in Portugal.”
One reason why the effects of the recession are not immediately obvious is because many people are using their savings or selling their assets to sustain their standard of living. The universities themselves are looking at their investment portfolios to improve their income.
Sfindourakis said state universities could be forced to co-operate more closely with private enterprise and firms might become more willing to sponsor programmes at state universities.
He rejected suggestions this could be privatisation through the back door: “The state university has nothing to fear from the private so-called colleges which will cater for people who will not be able to go to a state university for a variety of reasons and that is very healthy.”
One note of optimism in the general gloom is in research which could provide a way out of the crisis. Financed with only 0.6% of GNP, the prospects of this rising to the pre-election promise of 2% are practically non-existent. But research is supported by a large number of different European programmes that provide much needed relief for researchers.
In a recent executive decision, the federation accused the government of lacking a plan for dealing with the crisis, claiming it remained anchored to policies of reductions in spending on health, education and research, as well as wages and salaries, which did not provide enough added value to pay off the country’s debt.
The federation demanded negotiations for a new salary structure with all the supplements in the basic salary and a fair and equitable tax system with exceptions for expenditure relating to professional activities such as subscriptions to scientific magazines, travelling to conferences and so forth.
The Education Ministry has indicated that a new legal framework for higher education would be brought before parliament in September. Academics hope this will provide solutions for all the major outstanding problems facing higher education in Greece.
(source: university world news)

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