ATHENS — In an ancient olive grove here, students of Plato's Academy once debated philosophy in the shadow of the Acropolis. At today's Greek universities, however, there has been little time for contemplation amid the clang of student protests and the acrid smell of tear gas.
There were few exams as the Greek university term ended this year. Instead, student protesters occupied more than 400 universities and technical schools and took to the streets with bricks and Molotov cocktails to protest proposed reforms to Greece's higher education system.
"This is the first step toward privatization," insisted student protester Niki Argiry, who studies Greek philology at the University of Athens. "They want to do it American-style, [so] you have to pay, and it's not free anymore."
No one is yet suggesting that Greek students pay tuition, but the government has proposed changes that would limit the number of years students can stay in school, reduce book subsidies, and soften a historical ban on police entering university grounds.
The tear gas-drenched protests that racked Greece during the past month reflect a broader crisis in higher education across the continent. Beleaguered by a lack of funding, rising numbers of students, and excessive state control, Europe's universities (mostly low-cost or free and funded by the government) are struggling to compete. But many countries are finding reform is not easy to implement – though they agree it is needed.
"Over time, they will have to change" to compete, says Richard Lambert, director general of the Confederation of British Industry and author of a new report on the state of European higher education for the Center for European Reform.
A few countries, such as Sweden and Denmark, recently implemented broad reforms, giving universities more autonomy and boosting their funding. European nations are working to standardize degrees across the continent, to ease the movement of knowledge and workers.
But as a whole, European universities have stagnated and now lag behind American universities by almost every measure – from funding to achievements in research to graduation rates.
According to one ranking of international universities (Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, which looked at research success), only two European universities – Oxford and Cambridge in England – cracked the Top 20. Seventeen of the top 20 were in the United States.
There are other signs, too, that Europe is falling behind in the knowledge industry. Between 1901 and 1950, 73 percent of Nobel Prize-winners lived in what is now the European Union. Between 1995 and 2004, European-based academics won just 19 percent of the prestigious awards. And European nations devote less than 2 percent of their GDP to research and development, compared with 2.6 percent in the US and 3.2 percent in Japan.
Although a smaller percentage of Europeans complete higher education than Americans do – 21 percent of the working population compared with 38 percent in the US – European grads have a harder time finding jobs than their American counterparts. According to the EU, among graduates ages 20 to 24, 12.3 percent of Europeans are unemployed, compared with only 1.6 percent of Americans.
One reason, says Krzysztof Powlowski, founder of Wyzsza Szkola Biznesu/National-Louis University, a private university in Poland modeled on a US college, is that traditional European universities pay little attention to the practicality of degrees or the quality of graduates.
"Part of academia is thinking that the classical model of universities is still important and right," he says, referring to the traditional European model of large public universities that offer classic degrees. "But many academics ... see the necessity for change because the distance between the top universities in the USA and the top universities in Europe is still growing."
European students also are voting with their feet: Twice as many European students come to America to study than the reverse, and US students tend to study overseas on a short-term basis for cultural exchanges. Meanwhile, Europeans often seek advanced qualifications in the US, especially in science and technology, according to Mr. Lambert's study on the state of European higher education.
Dr. Powlowski's university runs differently from most European models: It charges $1,700 a year, offers degrees in business, computer science, and political science, and helps place graduates in jobs through a network of alumni.
While there is consensus that the problems in European academia run deep, there is wide debate about how to fix them.
Lambert and many others argue that European universities should look to the American model of higher education, which offers a wide variety of schools to meet student needs, relies more on private funding, and gives schools more autonomy in managing curricula and finances.
In Greece and many other European nations, governments directly fund universities, so students pay no tuition. But as a result, governments can wield enormous influence over schools, even dictating curricula or hiring instructors. In many cases, institutions don't have the right to choose students or to specialize, which makes it difficult to create elite, selective programs. European universities also are short on funds: On average, they spend less than $11,000 a year per postsecondary student, vs. $25,000 in the US.
To address this funding gap, some countries have begun implementing tuition fees in recent years. British university students now pay up to $5,500 a year, for instance. International institutions such as the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development and the EU are increasingly advocating this approach.
But attempts to implement fees are often politically unpopular and bitterly opposed by students.
"It's taken for granted that the market-oriented approach is going to happen," says Janja Komijenovi, a student activist from Slovenia. "The whole society benefits from education, so it should be in the public interest to pay for it."
Greece's universities are some of Europe's most troubled, yet students here are among the most resistant to change. There are no lending libraries, and many courses rely on a single state-approved textbook. Many students take years, even a decade, to complete their coursework.
"It has very little in the final analysis to do with the actual reforms," says Thanos Veremis, president of the Greek National Council of Education of the protests. "Students are there mainly because they are afraid they won't get jobs."
Eight of the world's Top 10 universities are in the United States, according to rankings by Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China. Its list of the top 500 universities, which it compiled to gauge the gap between universities in China and elsewhere, can be found at: http://ed.sjtu.edu.cn/rank/2005/ARWU2005 Main.htm
1. Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
2. University of Cambridge, England
3. Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.
4. University of California, Berkeley
5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.
6. California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif.
7. Columbia University, New York
8. Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.
9. University of Chicago
10. University of Oxford, England