Exiting democracy, entering authoritarianism: state control, policing and surveillance in Greek universities
A bill regarding the “safety” and policing of Greek universities, among other issues, was voted on the 11th of February 2021, by 166 MPs from New Democracy, the right-wing ruling party, and Greek Solution, a far-right party, despite the unanimous opposition of left-wing parties (132 MPs), the Greek academic and student community and police unions. It came in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic which has arguably been an extremely difficult, painful, insecure, traumatic and challenging situation that has affected everyone’s life, including economic, health and cultural systems around the world. That context is accompanied by an extremely uncertain, obscure and blurry future that heightens insecurity globally and locally. The education system has been particularly affected with universities being closed for over a year; teaching is only taking place virtually (with detrimental effects on the mental health of both teaching staff and students); and where it is extremely difficult due to social distancing regulations for the educational community to come together, discuss and exchange views on pressing matters regarding the future of Higher Education.
What does the bill entail?
The bill “Admission into Higher Education, Protection of Academic Freedom, Upgrading of the Academic Environment and further provisions”, which became law (4477/2021) on the 17th of February 2021, requires from all Higher Education institutions the implementation of security systems such as: the surveillance and recording of both image and sound (CCTV cameras, microphones etc) on open and closed University spaces; movement censors and alarm systems; restricted access to university spaces only for university staff and students or even biometric controls at the entrances; electronic detection systems for illegal substances and objects; and Control Centers for Signals and Images to be established within University premises.
The law also dictates the introduction of both Units and Committees for “Safety and Protection”, as well as Disciplinary Councils for Students together with a list of a variety of disciplinary offences. The former will be responsible for the drafting, implementation, assessment and management of security agendas and requirements for each individual university, while the latter will be conducting “disciplinary interrogations” and fulfill duties such as: autopsy, witness cross-examination, interrogation of the “persecuted” and composing experts’ reports. The Disciplinary Council will have the power to impose fines and even expel students who have committed disciplinary offences. The Units and Committees for Safety and Protection as well as the Disciplinary Councils, will be composed by University teaching and research staff, transforming them thus, from teachers and researchers to cops and security managers.
Importantly, Article 18 of the law also dictates for the first time in a democratic European country the establishment of a police security force for universities under the name: “Squads for the Protection of Universities”. The Squads will be carrying a truncheon, handcuffs and anaesthetic/pepper spray gases; they will be patrolling campuses and police stations are to be established within University premises without the consent of university authorities. Further, these squads are to be staffed initially with 1030 police officers (Special Guards), a number that is set to increase depending on the “security needs” of each institution. While for the Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the creation of these Squads and the extensive surveillance of public Universities are “a means of closing the door to violence and opening the way to freedom” and “it is not the police who enter universities, but democracy”; for the majority of the academic community as well as opposition parties, this legislation is an alarming move towards authoritarianism as it opens the doors to the permanent policing and surveillance of universities.
Abolishing the self-rule of universities and academic freedom through permanent policing, surveillance and disciplining of universities
To assess those worries we need firstly to set the context. Greek universities (in something that is often uncommon in universities in the Anglo-American part of the world, but very common in Southern Europe, France and Latin America) are very much intertwined with Greek politics and wider social struggles. They constitute an energetic social and political space, which is closely connected to and strengthens wider society’s social struggles against forms of oppression and injustice, rather than simply being sterile spaces of providing information. As such they have historically played a crucial role in Greek politics and constitute “a stronghold of democracy”. Students who occupied the National Technical University of Athens in 1973 against the military junta - an occupation which ended when tanks invaded the gates of the University killing dozens of students and people in the surrounding areas - are considered to be one of the key factors for the overthrown of the junta regime and the transition of Greece to democracy. Since then the academic and student community has been engaging in various forms of protest and solidarity to wider social struggles, while the entrance of police to university premises was banned by law in 1982. The police were only eligible to enter after a University Dean’s request or if a serious crime took place. The “asylum” law as it was called, was abolished in August of 2019, almost as soon as the conservative government of New Democracy came to power.
Within this context, the fact that the education law (4477/2021) was drafted for the first time in Greek history jointly by both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Citizen’s Protection (i.e. Ministry of Policing), shapes as will become clear, the character and goals of the legislation; which are nothing less than the targeting and criminalization of the socio-political character of the Greek University and academic freedom.
Therefore the first thing to consider that substantiates the worries of the academic community is that the 1030 police officers (Special Guards) who will form the “Squads for the Protection of Universities” will not have graduated from the 3-year Police Academy degree, which was the principle requirement so far in police hiring procedures. Rather Special Guards are trained through speedy processes and are staffed through rapid hiring procedures of candidates that have declared an interest in becoming police officers, hold simply a high school degree and have completed their military service (compulsory for men in Greece) – preferably from the special forces, reserve military forces, Presidential Guard or from 5-year forces of military volunteers or from bodies of professional soldiers. In the summer of 2019 when the right-wing government of New Democracy was elected, 1,500 Special Guards were recruited to staff riot police and motorbike police (DIAS squads) and now 1030 more will staff University Police. As the Reader of Criminology at Teesside University, George Papanikolaou, argues, we are witnessing a restructuring of the Greek police, whereby male personnel shaped through military type of training and culture will be incorporated in frontline squads to deal with citizens.
It is no wonder then, given the historical tensions in Greece between student movements and the police, that the academic and student community fear a regression to an authoritarian state, where they will be dealt with as “internal enemies” and handled accordingly. These fears become more and more real as both before and after the bill was passed, the police have engaged in widespread blind violence and authoritarian practices: driving motorbikes at students peacefully protesting against the bill; breaking the teeth and jaw with a fire extinguisher of a peaceful student protestor; torturing in public sight a student that was member of the student group, which as a form of protesting against the educational law had peacefully occupied the administration building of the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki; and even kidnapping students from their own houses in the city of Chania, Crete.
It should also be noted that the lack of training of the Special Guards has also raised serious concerns and objections within police unions, who unilaterally oppose the staffing of the university squads in such a way. Despite the lack however of proper training, these squads will have the authority to patrol, arrest, conduct preliminary interrogations, prevent and address any “deviant” or criminal behaviour within University spaces (Article 18); and are to staff the Control Centers for Signals and Images together with university personnel. The fact that the law (Article 19) clearly states that Special Guards can perform all police duties except for preliminary interrogation, a function that they are set to perform in universities, creates serious questions for the academic and student community. It is also not clarified by the law what is meant by “deviant” behavior or the ways in which these squads are going to “prevent” it (i.e. will they stop and search students and staff and conduct inspections in teaching rooms)? Further, university authorities are to facilitate the new patrolling “Special Forces” in “all possible ways” to implement their duties. Again, it remains unclear by the law what this facilitation will entail and whether Deans and university Senates will have the right to object or even to reject such facilitation.
This last point leads us to the most important issue about this legislation. The educational law (Article 18 para.5) dictates that these police squads will not answer to university authorities, as required so far by the constitutional autonomous character of universities. Instead, they will directly fall under the mandate of the Ministry of Citizen’s Protection and the Greek police. All these aspects are very distant from the protection of academic freedom that the legislation alleges to support. Academic freedom entails freedom of scientific research and teaching, freedom of circulation of ideas as well as, the constitutional prerequisite of the fully autonomous nature of universities. Therefore, the fact that these squads will act and be managed and supervised by the Greek police renders this law unconstitutional regarding the principle of university self-rule. The legislation hinders academic freedom and arguably transforms Greek Universities into fortresses of control, surveillance, repression and policing. The fact that the undersecretary of education justified the establishment of police squads and stations within universities on the grounds that it was also a practice during the military junta, attests further to the worries of the academic community regarding academic freedom and university’s self-rule.
Further, while for universities in the Anglo-American world widespread surveillance is a common and more often than not, unchallenged practice; most probably these universities were not blackmailed (although some recent developments regarding freedom of speech in British Universities might prove otherwise) by their country’s government through legislation (in the Greek case Parts C(d) and D (b) of the law) that their funding would be cut if they did not implement the surveillance and disciplinary prerequisites of the law. A factor that again verifies the abolition of University’s self-rule. Regarding the 24/7 surveillance data of the Centers for Signals and Images it is not clear concerning privacy and data protection, how long the data will be stored, what will be the purpose of processing it and, most importantly, what safety valves are there in order to prevent misuse of the data. So far practices in Greece show that the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is not being upheld. As the expert on Data Protection and Privacy law, Prof. Mitrou, has argued “The Greek law has not respected the GDPR as standard borderline and has (mis)used ‘opening clauses’ and Member State discretion not to enhance but to reduce the level of data protection”.
Making the situation worse, the fact that University’s teaching and research personnel, who are to staff these Centres along with the police are largely unfamiliar with security planning and surveillance systems, makes more probable for the University police squads to oversee handling of the data. Creating hence serious concerns over who will supervise these squads against violating EU laws regarding data processing and misuse. Similar questions are being posed for the staffing of Units and Committees for Safety and Protection. Moreover, it is not clarified whether the University police squads will also be equipped with devices allowing for live facial recognition and fingerprint identification that Greek police is to receive by summer 2021. An issue that creates even more intense unease regarding the legitimacy and protection of handling of also biometric data of students and staff.
In essence, the fact that there have been various cases in the Anglo-American world where privacy and data protection safeguards have been breached: administrators of surveillance systems and university administrators monitor emails and social media of staff and students; their on- and sometimes off-campus movements; and have used this monitoring to let go of academic personnel and suppress any type of protest or diffusion of information that while abiding by university’s code of ethics is not approved by university administration; attests to the worries of the Greek academic and student community regarding academic freedom. This is affirmed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)- which has already found that such monitoring practices are open to misuse and hence can turn to not only illiberal but unconstitutional tools. These alarming developments should perhaps make us all reflect on whether we are trading away too much of our liberty in the name of “safety” and whether we want universities to become authoritarian institutions. But how did we come to this?
Deliberate efforts at defamation of the Greek public university
During the previous months, the government of New Democracy together with pro-government media engaged in a malicious campaign aiming to defame public universities and represent them to Greek citizens as “sites of lawlessness”, disorder and delinquency. There are definitely problems in Greek universities (mainly caused by the severe underfunding over the past decade), but they are not as depicted by the mass media as centres of crime and havoc. Sofia Vidali, a professor of criminology, eloquently deconstructs such representations in her article “Criminality and Policing in Greek Higher Education: ‘truths’ and ‘lies’”, by showing that instances of delinquency and petty criminality relate to wider socio-economic and spatial characteristics of the area in which each University is placed. Moreover, offences within and in the surrounding areas (both are counted as one in official police statistics) of University premises constitute a very minor subtotal (2,053 offences out of approximately 1,835,792) of the country’s crimes for the periods 2007-2018.
Arguably, one of the key stereotypes that has been employed by the Minister of Education, Niki Kerameus, and pro-government media propaganda, was that academics are afraid of being hostage to students (particularly students with leftist leanings). They constructed a “moral panic” (see Coehn, S. 1972/2002) around two incidents. The one was the symbolic building in 2006 of the Dean’s office of Democritus University of Thrace by students in protest at the scandalous mismanagement of their alimentation. While the Dean’s office was empty when the building occurred, the stereotype purposefully constructed was that the students had trapped the Dean inside his office, with Mrs. Kerameus stating on 8/02/2021 that “we need to convince young people that it is not normal to build professors within their offices”. The second case was an unfortunate and atypical incident at the Economic University of Athens in October 2020, where young people from the anti-authoritarian political realm forced the Dean to wear a label saying that he supported squatted buildings. While unanimously the academic community had condemned the event and, despite it being an exception rather the rule, the incident has been represented as the common feature of university life. These representations were widely used to justify and legitimize to the wider public the necessity for disciplining, surveillance and establishment of a police force within universities.
As part of these representations was also an orchestrated defamation of University professors who challenged such depictions. A typical example was that the Greek government has attempted to justify its law through false pretenses of “best practice” stemming from examples in the Western World and particularly Oxford University; saying that there is a police force established for the security of the latter. When a Greek professor at the University of Oxford, Antonios Tzanakopoulos, denied the presence of such police force, Greek pro-government media and Ministers, following largely Trump’s techniques of communication, attempted to distort and slander his statements by saying that he is a liar and a defrauder who spreads fake news. It should be noted that the Oxford UCU has openly taken a stance against the law, while denying the existence of a university police force in its premises. These processes of disinformation, censoring and silencing of any voice that runs counter to the government’s agenda has been a common practice throughout the past year, rendering Greece 4th before last within the EU regarding press freedom and a flawed democracy. It should be emphasised that no police force is established in any European University. Rather, as is the current case in Greece, security personnel and porters (which can be both private and public servants) under a university’s authority are responsible for security issues.
Importantly, these deliberate practices of defamation of Universities, their academic staff and students come after almost a decade of severe underfunding of the Greek university. During the acute economic crisis (2010-2018), university funding was cut from 75% to even 120% in some Universities, placing Greece in the last positions in Europe in terms of university funding and infrastructures (including the firing of the porters and security personnel). Hence it comes as a great disappointment for university personnel to see that the government is willing to provide 50 million euros (20 million annually for the salaries of the 1030 university police squads and 30 million for the implementation of security systems), when 91 million is the entire budget for universities, who still suffer from underfunding. This money could arguably be used to hire more teaching, research and administrative personnel, porters and the development of infrastructures (i.e. teaching spaces and lab equipment). Arguably the problems that Greek Universities face due to chronic underfunding will not be solved by policing and surveillance.
It should also be highlighted that the defamatory representations purposefully tend to omit that Greek universities, despite their underfunding and global inequalities in terms of knowledge production, where if you don’t publish in English you literally don’t exist, achieve really good positions in Global University Rankings (ranked among the top 1000 Universities in the world). Crucially these slandering representations come after another legislation (4653/2020) of the Ministry of Education, which equated the degrees of private colleges with those of public universities that significantly “upgraded” the degrees of the former and “downgraded” the degrees of the latter. Private colleges in Greece do not produce research and the knowledge that they provide does not go through the same quality assessments as that of public universities. This “upgrade” of private colleges is combined with another controversial aspect of the law (4477/2021) under discussion, which reduces the numbers of students’ induction to public universities by 20%-30%, channeling arguably the “left-out” students to private colleges. An aspect that not only reduces further the funding of public universities but will also afflict the most vulnerable social strata of Greek society by hindering their educational and social mobility. In other words, the representations of criminality and “lawlessness” and the wider defamation and degrading of the public university, propagated by the mass media and the right-wing government, facilitates the latter in legitimizing the domination of the “law and order” dogma while at the same time fulfilling its neoliberal agenda of privatization of higher education.
Conclusive remarks: What university do we want?
As Prof. Costas Douzinas, at Birkbeck University, has argued, what is missing from all contemporary discussions about higher education in Greece and abroad is the core question of what universities do we want? The university at its core aims towards the complete freedom of thinking, critiquing, challenging, researching and circulating of ideas in a constant search for the “truth”. It aims to deepen democracy, including cognitive democracy by providing a pluriversality of knowledges, pedagogies and methodologies to understand the world around us. As such university education has a value in and of itself, which cannot be reduced simply to a tool(vocational) value. Indeed the knowledge provided by universities is about the blossoming of the human soul and mind by constantly shaping an understanding about the human condition, of our individual selves, the world and our societies, which is an “absolute human value” in and of itself (Carr 2009:14). In this way students will later be able to contribute not only to the economy but also to democracy.
When the University simply becomes a vocational school – a trend that we largely see growing globally and is arguably also the aim of the Greek education law by attempting to downgrade public universities and criminalise socio-political action - then it stops cultivating knowledge and becomes instead simply a depository of information; a commodity that if invested in, will provide the necessary skills for the production of a “disciplined” learner/ consumer/worker to only serve the needs of each nation’s economic growth (Drummond, 2003). As such the University loses its liberatory and democratic essence and its interconnection to social struggles. Professor Boaventura de Sousa Santos powerfully demonstrates what is at stake globally if we continue to follow this trend: “Wherever you are, there are always people struggling against oppression, and you should really try to work with them if you are at the university. Otherwise, the university will be soon a capitalist enterprise like any other, whose market value is defined by rankings, students will be consumers and teachers, workers or, more nicely, collaborators. If we fail our social responsibility, the university as we know it will have no future”. This article is a call against such a dark future that will affect us all globally and locally and may jeopardise the future of democracy and academic freedom as we know it.
Carr, D. (2009) “Revisiting the Liberal and Vocational Dimensions of University Education”, in British Journal of Educational Studies. 57 (1): pp. 1-17.
Cohen, Stanley. 2002 . Folk Devils and Moral Panics. London: Routledge.
Drummond, J. (2003) “Care of the Self in a Knowledge Economy: Higher Education, Vocation and the Ethics of Michel Foucault”, Educational Philosophy Theory, Vol. 35 (1), pp. 57-69.