Greece approves ending state monopoly on university education, despite student protests

Greece approves ending state monopoly on university education, despite student protests

Greek lawmakers approved sweeping reforms early on Saturday that will end the state monopoly on university education, breaking what powerful left-wing student groups have long regarded as a major taboo.

Hours before the vote, which began Friday evening and ended after midnight, protesters attacked police outside parliament with petrol bombs and firecrackers as some 18,000 people demonstrated in central Athens against the proposed legislation.

Police charged a few dozen violent demonstrators and fired tear gas. A police statement said nine members of the public and seven officers were injured, while three suspected rioters were arrested.

Friday's rally followed weeks of demonstrations that included scores of university building occupations by students. Nevertheless, opinion polls indicate that most Greeks agree with the creation of privately-run universities.

Lawmakers present in the 300-seat parliament voted 159-129 in favour of the bill. Announcement of the result was delayed until after midnight by three lawmakers from a small left-wing party, who remained seated and studied a printout of the draft law for over two hours after everyone else had cast their ballots and left. The party had earlier said it would vote against the bill.

Greece’s centre-right government has argued that the reform would help attract skilled workers back to the country.

“We must say a resounding ‘yes’ to this measure … as a guarantee of greater freedom and greater access to knowledge for all Greek students,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told parliament ahead of the vote.

At Friday's rally – which was mostly peaceful – the students were joined by a small group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators and marchers from an event marking International Women's Day.

“This government wants to privatise everything ... but at the same time, the cost of living is going up and up and our wages remain pitiful,” Anna Adamidi, a philosophy student, told Associated Press. “The private sector comes in and dismantles public (education), making use of resources that they will pay nothing for.”

Opposition parties were broadly against the bill, arguing that it violates the constitution and could create a two-tier system for students.

Education reforms in Greece are often politically charged, with university activism historically linked to pro-democracy movements but also later used as a refuge for violent protest groups.

Although some private higher education is already legal in Greece, the new law would make degrees from vetted private institutions equivalent to public universities. Overseas universities would be allowed to open branches in Greece using a non-profit status, despite charging tuition fees.

More than 650,000 students are currently enrolled at state-run universities in Greece and an additional 40,000 are studying abroad, according to Education Ministry officials who briefed lawmakers before this week’s debate.

The Mitsotakis government, early in its second term and with a huge lead in opinion polls, has carried out several major reforms in recent weeks, including legalising same-sex marriage and introducing a postal vote for the upcoming European Parliament elections in June.