What Happens Now? The Fallout of Greece’s Education Cuts

Adrienne is a fifth-grade student in Greece. Her neighborhood school closed, so she now travels half an hour to attend school many kilometers away. She sits in a classroom with other students who traveled similar distances. They wait for their teacher to arrive, but no one comes because the teacher is sick, and there’s no money to hire a substitute. What happens now?

This unfortunate scenario is one of many faced by Greek students—and the result of unprecedented budget cuts to the education system in the wake of the 2009 meltdown of the Greek economy. The Greek government secured loan deals with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to keep the country afloat and has since received major financial bailouts. Even still, the country’s education budget took a 7 percent hit, leaving devastating consequences on primary and secondary schools—and the future prosperity of Greece.

At the close of the 2010-11 school year, more than 20,000 public school teachers retired or changed careers due to low wages and difficult working conditions—circumstances as bad as no wintertime heat. And despite this massive exodus of the workforce, the Education Ministry had funds to hire only about 3,500 new teachers, leaving more than15,000 classrooms without teachers.

According to Greek officials, the teacher shortage hit high schools and special education programs the hardest. Making matters worse, nearly 15 percent of former private school students transferred to public schools that same year because families could no longer afford the tuition. And with no money to hire substitute teachers to account for the shortage, the country faced a crippling crisis.

How did the Education Ministry address these enormous challenges? They closed more than 1,000 schools—and combined nearly 2,000 of them—despite widespread resistance from students, parents, teachers and local officials. Although these school mergers increased available funds for the remaining schools, they brought on substantially larger class sizes and longer commutes, changing the quality of life (and learning) for Greek families.

Greece’s Education Ministry argues that consolidation makes it easier to implement a unified curriculum and to offer programs tailored to the needs of a global, 21st-century economy. New statewide curricula and programs are underway to integrate more digital technology, to bolster and decentralize professional development for teachers and school leaders, and to design and implement a comprehensive system to assess learning outcomes.

As primary and secondary schools undergo these major reforms in the wake of major cuts, the Greek public higher education system faces similar difficulties. With 24 universities and 16 technical colleges—all public institutions—Greece cut its higher education budget 30 percent in 2010 and 20 percent in 2011. To stem the decline and make the higher-education system more competitive and efficient, the Greek legislature recently passed a major reform bill linking funding and faculty salaries to student performance. It also created new rules to generate revenue through private sponsorships and donations. According to the Education Ministry, the reform bill will lead to many improvements—among them “efficiency, accountability, effectiveness and transparency,” claims Yannos Mitsos, an advisor to the higher-education minister, as quoted in a Chronicle of Higher Education article.

Yet the reform bill has many opponents. In August 2011, hundreds of students protested the passing of the bill, arguing that it takes power away from students and faculty. Many fear the reforms will push the Greek public education system toward privatization.

As these debates work themselves out, most agree that Draconian cuts like these will have serious implications far into the future. Just as Greece’s economy is reliant on developing the minds of its children as innovators and drivers to strengthen Greek—and European—economic success, Adrienne and her friends suffer the consequences. Until the new curriculum is introduced and Greece’s economic woes are behind her, students like Adrienne must make do with long school commutes, antiquated educational standards and the very real possibility of being left behind in the 21st-century economy.

Learn More

Anna Diamantopoulou: The Role of Education in Greece’s Economic Recovery,” Friends of Europe

Education Reform: A Priority for a Better Future,” Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development

Amid Protests, Greece Enacts Bill Meant to Make Universities More Competitive,” The Chronicle of Higher Education

Greece, U.S. Department of State

Mass Merger of Schools from September,” GR Reporter

Students are Turning from Private to Public Schools Because of High Fees,” GR Reporter

Students Protest as Greek Ministry of Education Announce Plans to Merge Schools,” Greek Reporter