ATHENS, Greece — Pro-education forces throughout Greece took to the streets this week for an all-out offensive of marches and demonstrations to block a parliamentary vote on privatizing the higher education system. The day the vote went to Parliament, Jan. 10, was declared a day of nationwide action.

Marches and demonstrations were held all day long in over 40 cities on the mainland and on the islands. Thousands upon thousands came out to protect the right of this and future generations to be educated. Their battle cry was “Free public education for all!”

While thousands of protesters thronged the Parliament building in Athens, shouting “Big business out of our schools,” reformist social-democratic (PASOK) and conservative (New Democracy) parliament members joined forces and pushed through a reactionary vote allowing the reappraisal of Article 16 of the Greek Constitution, which protects the public nature of higher education. This vote opens the road not only to the founding of private universities but to the total privatization of public education.

Article 16 stipulates that higher education is publicly owned and free for everyone. PASOK and New Democracy, following the directives of the European Union as set out in the Bologna Treaty of 1999, have been collaborating to amend this article in order to permit the establishment of privately owned universities whose degrees would be fully recognized by the Greek state.

Both the previous PASOK government and current New Democracy government have systematically neglected and undermined public education, paving the way in the public consciousness for the approval of the amendment. New Democracy, for example, was elected on an “education platform” that promised 5 percent of the state budget for education. Yet on their watch, state expenditure for education has dropped from 3.6 percent to 3.2 percent.

This first vote to put Article 16 up for amendment will be followed by a second vote at the end of February, with the final, decisive vote set for the end of March. If the amendment to Article 16 were to pass, it would open the doors to mass privatization of the higher education system, effectively assimilating it into the global capitalist system of pay-as-you-go. Universities would compete to gain funding from the state and multinational corporations.

Amendment supporters argue that placing education in private hands would “upgrade” it, “make it more competitive” and stop the brain drain of Greek youth to other countries. The reality is that education would be drastically downgraded, and universities would become commercial enterprises.

A two-tier university system would be developed, with a few select universities for those who can afford it and many more downgraded commercial enterprises where working-class youth could “buy” a degree of questionable value, despite their hard work and sacrifice. Those who could afford it would continue to be educated abroad.

Mass social struggle here in Greece has effectively delayed the implementation of many

neoliberal education reforms that have already been put in place in other European countries. The marches, mobilizations and school takeovers by the students starting last summer grew larger and more dynamic in the fall (see the students’ web site for photos) as the government refused to back down and its hypocritical calls for dialogue with educators and students ended in the tear-gassing of demonstrators.

Although the initial vote passed, pro-education forces have vowed to carry on, guided by the slogan, “The only lost battles are those that are not fought.”