What Do the Greek Austerity Measures Mean for Education?

Last week, the Greek government passed new austerity measures, making even deeper cuts to the country's public sector. Thousands of Greek citizens have taken to the streets to protest the plans.
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Greece will receive a second bailout from the European Union -- to the tune of €130 billion ($173 billion )-- as part of a deal reached by Eurozone finance ministers on February 21st.

Last week, the Greek government passed new austerity measures, making even deeper cuts to the country's public sector. Thousands of Greek citizens have taken to the streets to protest the plans, which will include more cuts to the education budget.

"The country is in a very deep crisis and, naturally, education is affected," Panos Tsakloglou, a professor in the department of International and European Economic Studies at Athens University of Economics and Business, said in an email. "If we really believe that human capital is the most important factor associated with economic growth, these cuts are likely to have a lasting impact."

Already this school year, the government has had trouble supplying textbooks to its students, and many schools are struggling to afford keeping the heat on throughout the day. Schools also haven't been able to invest in new technologies, "an area where Greece was already lagging behind most European countries," Tsakloglou said.

Nearly 2,000 Greek schools will be closed or forced to merge. Most of the schools were very small and in rural areas; students will be transferred to the nearest school that is still open. The decision was made for educational as well as budgetary reasons, according to Tsakloglou, over objections from local communities.

The country's education budget has been falling for years, being cut by nearly 8 percent between 2010 and 2011 alone and an additional 2.9 percent between 2011 and 2012. Considering all of the factors, such as inflation, Tsakloglou estimated that "in real terms" the decline in education funding has been about 20 to 25 percent.

In 2005, Greece spent just over 4 percent of its GDP on education, placing it in the bottom third of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. It has now likely slipped further, Tsakloglou said.

Although the newest austerity measures do not specify which cuts will be made, public education will likely be hit once more. Still, the measures have coincided with an effort to reduce wasteful spending in education, meaning the impact of the cuts will be somewhat mitigated, Tsakoglou said.

"The main victim of the cuts was the investment budget," he said. "A number of building programs were postponed or abandoned and, further, maintenance was kept to a minimum. At the same time, the number of new teacher appointments was cut rapidly."

Prior to the Greek crisis, the country had some of the lowest student-to-teacher ratios of OECD countries. Many positions vacated by retiring teachers have not been filled, and some of those in non-teaching, administrative positions have ended up back in the classroom. There have been salary cuts across the board.

"It is still too early to have a full picture of the cuts and implications," Harry Patrinos, a lead education economist at The World Bank, said in an email. He noted that financial crises in other countries reveal a pattern of the well-educated being hurt less than the poorly educated, and that such crises can deepen existing inequalities.

"The gap increases even after the recession and on into the recovery. Thus, inequality increases over time as a result of a crisis, and the beneficiaries tend to be the better-educated," he said. "There will definitely be a lasting effect."

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