Protesters hurl firebombs as Greek lawmakers prepare to vote for private universities

Clashes broke out Friday in front of Greece's parliament where thousands marched against a government plan to introduce privately run universities

Derek Gatopoulos,Srdjan Nedeljkovic
Friday 08 March 2024 15:16 GMT

Protesters hurled gasoline bombs and firecrackers at police outside Greece's parliament Friday after thousands attended a demonstration against government plans to introduce privately run universities.

Police charged the violent demonstrators and fired tear gas to disperse the crowds. Several people were hurt and received first aid from volunteer medics who reached parliament by motorcycle.

Friday's rally followed weeks of demonstrations that included scores of university building occupations by students.

Lawmakers were to vote on the measure later Friday, with the bill expected to pass. Greece’s center-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 were mostly peaceful – the students were joined by a small group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators and marchers from an event marking International Women's Day. Among them was Anna Adamidi, a philosophy student, whose placard bore the words, "International Women’s Day: We Struggle. We Strike. We Fight.” “This government wants to privatize everything ... but at the same time, the cost of living is going up and up and our wages remain pitiful,” she said. “The private sector comes in and dismantles public (education), making use of resources that they will pay nothing for.”

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

“The (government) is introducing the concept of meritocracy paid by tuition fees. Whoever has money will study: the power of privilege,” lawmaker Harris Mamoulakis, for the main left-wing opposition party Syriza, said during the three-day debate. 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 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 nonprofit status despite charging tuition fees.

More than 650,000 students currently study 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 legalizing same-sex marriage and introducing a postal vote for the upcoming European Parliament elections in June. ___ Thanassis Stavrakis and Theodora Tongas in Athens contributed.

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