A student rally in central Athens against the plan for private universities erupted into violence on Thursday, and protesters clashed with police.
Skirmishes began in front of Parliament on Syntagma Square as protesters tried to breach the security cordon and reach the House, prompting police to deploy tear gas.
Students and educators have been campaigning against the government bill that would permit private universities to operate in the country as Greek branches of foreign universities ever since it was announced in December.
Student unions believe the move will devalue degrees from Greece’s public universities and that the private system will exclude those who cannot afford it.
The Greek Federation of Secondary Education State School Teachers (OLME), who participated in the protest, said it supported the public character of universities.
Announcing the bill, Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis said it aimed to attract foreign students to the country and make a significant contribution to the Greek economy.
He added that the approximately forty thousand Greek students who travel abroad for higher education each year would have the option to study in the country.
Private universities in Greece are banned by the constitution
Mitsotakis also emphasized that the reform would significantly contribute to the Greek economy. Until now, Greece is the only Western country that bans private universities. This is due to Article 16 of the Greek Constitution, which states that “the formation of universities by private individuals is forbidden.”
The Greek government is expected to use a 2020 ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union to allow private universities to overcome the ban imposed by Article 16.
In Greece, universities have always been state-owned entities, and their faculty are civil servants, paid by the government.
The ban was created during the 1967-74 military dictatorship to prevent communists from creating private universities for propaganda purposes.
In recent years, there has been growing support for legalizing private universities in Greece. Supporters of this change argue it would give Greek students more choice and flexibility and help meet the growing demand for higher education.
However, opposition parties argue the proposed reform would harm the quality of Greek higher education and increase inequality. They also claim the government is prioritizing the interests of specific business entrepreneurs over public education.
Private universities could launch their operation in Greece from the 2025 to 2026 academic year, or “in any case by the end of this government’s tenure,” said Education Minister Kyriakos Pierrakakis.
The Greek government’s “new legislation that allows for the founding of private, non-profit universities in the country means we will stop being the only country in the world without private higher education institutions,” he stressed.