ATHENS – Something’s happening here and what it is exactly clear. Greece’s ruling New Democracy – at the best of some academics wanting security after rectors and professors were attacked – passed an education reform bill that includes campus police forces.
But it split not only the staff at Greek universities where students have run amok for years, taking over buildings, holding sit-ins and almost terrorizing opponents – but political parties and society over how to deal with it.
In a feature, Euronews reported on how Greek students demonstrated against the bill before it was passed that set up a university police force, which they said will stifle freedom of expression.
The campus cops scheme is an operation not of cops but security forces reporting to police and with university officials having a big say in how they are used unless they detain suspects in more serious apparent crimes.
The government said it was responding to violence on school grounds, including an attack on a rector who had a sign hung around his neck supporting squatters, a cause celebre for anarchists being pushed out of their stronghold in the Athens neighborhood of Exarchia.
"The problem of violence in Greek universities is timeless. The police will drive out extremist political groups and guard the infrastructure, finally making the university a safe place" a spokesperson for the Ministry for Citizen Protection told Euronews.
Citizens’ Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis. (Photo by Eurokinissi/ Sotiris Dimitropoulos)
For opponents, such as the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA, which has many veterans of student occupations when they were at universities, the security reeks of the days of the ruling military junta of right-wing Colonels from 1967-74.
A "university asylum law" which prevented police from entering campuses except for particularly serious crimes put in place after the junta fell but after SYRIZA let it be used to harbor criminals on campuses it was ended by New Democracy.
"The idea of a university police brings me back to a very painful time," Nikos Manios, a former student who opposed the dictatorship, told Euronews, although the government had received a letter from many academics asking for help after school officials let students and troublemakers run amok.
"At the end of the military junta, I came back to the university to enrol again, as I had been expelled during the resistance. On campus, I met the person who had tortured me during my imprisonment. He kept spying and taking notes of students enrolling at the university as he had done in the past,” he said.
"There I realized that the dictatorship might have ended, but the universities were still in danger of being controlled by political power," he added. The government said school officials had been given many chances to rein in excesses of students but let grounds be overrun by drug dealers too.
University students wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus, chant slogans as they take part in a rally against education reforms in Athens, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
THE DARK DAYS
During demonstrations that failed to sway the government, which had a majority in Parliament, protesters "Bread, education and freedom" — a traditional slogan of the students who opposed the dictatorship.
The government refutes that the reform will stifle freedom. "It is ridiculous to think that the police will spy on the students," the spokesperson for the Ministry for Citizen Protection said.
"On the contrary, it will help the rectors to ensure the free flow of ideas that are threatened right now by some extremist groups," they went on. Students also don’t want higher standards for getting into universities or staying there but the government ended the “Eternal Student” leniency that let some stay for life without ever graduating.
Maria Kalkoni, a student protester, said that, "It happens that groups of self-styled anarchists occupy university classrooms or damage equipment. However, these episodes do not hinder university activities as the government would have us believe," she told Euronews.
Police detain protesters during a student rally against campus policing in Athens, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
Thousands of Greek professors also urged the government to withdraw the bill although many wanted government intervention to stop violence and the sight of students and agitators occupying buildings and committing violence.
"The problem of the Greek universities is not about police but the lack of funding," Dimitris Kaltsonis, Professor of State Theory and Law at Panteion University, told Euronews.
"According to surveys, the crime rate in Greek universities is in line with that of other countries. Moreover, the police can already enter universities if a crime is committed: there is no need for special police to control the campuses," he argued.
The Oxford Local Association of the University and College Union (UCU) backed Greek professors opposing the reform, writing in a press release that it "is unlikely to respond to the most pertinent problems of Greek higher education institutions, such as chronic underfunding."
"The University of Oxford does not have a university police force, security on University premises is provided by the University's own personnel," it also said without noting the difference in attitude among rebellious Greek students.
Students and teachers take part in a rally against education reforms in Athens, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
Citizen Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis recently told Parliament that the reform opens the door to rectors being able to eventually hire private guards. But, he stressed, "this solution is not feasible at the moment, but only when the police eradicate criminal groups from universities."
Alekos Akridas, a student protester, told the site that, "Since Kyriakos Mitsotakis was elected in 2019, he has kept hiring new policemen in response to every alleged problem. This policy has brought nothing but more riots and a climate of fear,” which was the problem the government said was happening.
A spokesman for the protection ministry said that, “We are investing in the quality of education as well, because universities are not safe places at the moment. Police on campuses is not a choice, but a necessary move.”