The Police in Greek Universities: An Unconstitutional Legislative Novelty with Historical Weight — Charalambos Kourondis

On 11 February 2021, in the midst of intense contestation and mass demonstrations, Act 4777/2021 was enacted by the Greek Parliament, with 166 votes being cast in favour (the MPs voting in favour belong to the centre-right neoliberal ruling party New Democracy and the far-right racist party “Greek Solution”) and 132 against. The new law on universities contains many controversial provisions, but the feature that generated the most intense debate was the provision calling for the creation of a special police force that will be located on university campuses. This post begins by discussing the unconstitutionality of this provision. It then provides an historical review of the principle of “university asylum” in Greece, in order to understand the meaning of the intense debate that surrounded the vote. [1] Finally, I offer some thoughts on the wider implications of this provision in the current conjuncture.

The New Legal Framework

The enacted law provides for the establishment of “university protection units”, to be staffed by junior officers of the Greek police force and special guards (article 18). These units will be responsible for the exercise of police duties, such as the prevention of crime on university campuses, the conduct of patrols, and the combatting of any kind of wrongdoing.

The provision for the establishment of these units was criticized by most Greek constitutional scholars on the grounds that it contradicts the principle of “full self-government” of university institutions, which is set out in article 16, paragraph 5 of the Constitution (“Higher education is provided exclusively by institutions which constitute legal entities under public law with full self-government”) and is intrinsically linked to the distinct character of higher education in Greece. This constitutional provision safeguards the academic space and the specific rights linked to it. It therefore aims to secure academic freedom, i.e. freedom of teaching and related freedoms of research and science, in the field of higher education. Simply put, for most Greek constitutional theorists, university asylum, in terms of academic freedom, is analogous to the “inviolability of the home” principle, in terms of the right to private life. On this basis, the fact that the operation, management, and supervision of the new office are carried out by the ministry of civil protection and the chief of police is crucial for the provision’s (un)constitutionality: universities will no longer control a function that is central to their operation. 

However, the new act does not simply remove from university authorities the competence to protect the security of these institutions. It also extends the police mission to the prevention and treatment of wrongdoing in general, not necessarily only criminal wrongdoing. The significance of this provision becomes apparent if it is considered in conjunction with article 23 of the same act, which lists a series of disciplinary offences that may be attributed to students and that may result in the imposition of disciplinary sanctions. Police preventive and repressive power applies even to disciplinary offences–and to such an extent that it may lead to ridiculous situations. For example, according to the new act, police on university campuses will be able to invigilate students’ exams, since (a) the police’s mission is to prevent the commission of wrongdoing and (b) violation of the integrity of the examination process constitutes a disciplinary offence, i.e.a manifestation of wrongdoing, the prevention of which is one of the police’s responsibilities. 

Lastly, it is worth noting that the government tried repeatedly to present the new legal framework as in harmony with contemporary European frameworks. This is despite the fact that no other European country provides for the permanent presence of preventive police patrols inside universities, except for security personnel, as of course was the case in Greece until now. [2]

The Role and Specific Significance of University Asylum in Greece

The extreme provisions of this act may seem nonsensical to the public outside of Greece unless approached in the light of the role of the student movement in post-war Greek history. The institution of university asylum, as it was formed and as it has operated in Greece, has been understood as protecting a space for free action and the organization of social movements on the left. This understanding is much broader than the protection of academic freedom alone. University asylum has been inscribed in collective consciousness as a means and form of wider popular mobilization.

In the 1950s and 1960s, struggles for the abolition of class barriers to education broke out with the slogan “let the poor study” and the demand to allocate 15% of the budget to education. Students sought to prevent police presence in their assemblies and mobilizations by invoking the principle of university asylum. These events took place during a period characterized by the survival and implementation of the anti-communist legislative framework that had been put into place during the 1946–49 civil war. [3] During the years of military dictatorship (1967–74), the student movement spearheaded mass resistance against the regime, culminating in the Polytechnic uprising in November 1973. [4] During the uprising, the National Technical University of Athens’ senate refused (explicitly on the basis of the university asylum principle) to grant permission to the police to evacuate the occupied Polytechnic building. This did not prevent the intervention of the army and the bloody suppression of the uprising. But it is worth noting that the junta–which, attempting to present a liberal face to the public, collapsed in part due to the Polytechnic uprising–initially asked the senate for permission to have police enter the area. This demonstrates that even the junta indirectly recognized the university as a space of asylum, even though there was no relevant constitutional or legislative provision at the time.

After the fall of the dictatorship, Konstantinos Karamanlis took over as prime minister, founding the New Democracy party and exercising government power in an environment of intense left-wing radicalization. [5] In the context of the 1975 government, which undertook the drafting of a new constitution [6], the opposition unanimously proposed that university asylum be safeguarded in article 16 of the Constitution, which regulates the status of education. This proposal was promoted not just by the parties of the communist left, the KKE and the KKE-Interior (forerunner of the current opposition party SYRIZA), but also by the centrist party “Centre Union–New Forces”, which was then in opposition, as well as PASOK. The New Democracy parliamentary majority rejected the proposal, but used defensive phraseology suggesting there was no need to guarantee university asylum explicitly since it was already covered by the guarantee of academic freedom.

Nevertheless, in the years of “metapolitefsi” [7], without any relevant legal provision and without explicit constitutional guarantees, universities flourished as places of meetings, events, and demonstrations–and not just student demonstrations. All radical ideological and political currents were active in universities and the slogan “asylum belongs to all the people” was often heard during demonstrations. At the beginning of September 1975, for instance, a strike broke out in the paper industry in Thessaloniki, the country’s second largest city. This is when the slogan “the worker’s right is the law”, sung in all strike rallies since, was heard for the first time. In November 1975, having been on strike for two months, the strikers went to Athens and organized a discussion at the Polytechnic on the subject of “‘November 1973 and workers’ struggles”, which was followed immediately by an open general assembly. This is not an isolated example. Trade unions, citizens’ movements, and activists from various fields have repeatedly found in universities a welcome space of discussion and organization.

The first legal recognition of university asylum came from a government headed by the social-democratic PASOK, which came to power in 1981. It took the form of Act 1268/1982. Article 2 of this act articulated, for the first time in positive law, the concept of university asylum, stating that “it covers the totality of university premises and consists in the prohibition of public force intervention in these premises without the invitation or permission of the competent body”. A three-member asylum committee was established as the competent body, consisting of the dean, a faculty representative, and a student representative. The first entry of police in a university space under this legal framework took place in November 1985, when the police, on the committee’s permission, evacuated the university chemistry building, which had been occupied in protest of the murder of Michalis Kaltezas, a fifteen-year-old child, by a police officer. This murder was met with outcry by the student community: no student assembly failed to condemn the police’s entry into the asylum space (which was legal, since it was done on the committee’s permission, but fundamentally illegitimate, in the conscience of the social majority). The situation was similar in the second case of police intervention in university space, which occurred in 1995.

The first legislative restriction of university asylum took place with Act 3549/2007. This act was passed following months of mobilizations and occupations of university institutions against the amendment of article 16 of the Constitution. Article 3 of this act declares that asylum “is recognized for the guarantee of academic freedoms and for the protection of the right to knowledge, learning and work of members of the academic community”. At the same time, this act abolished the three-member asylum committee and transferred the relevant competence to the dean’s council. The most radical break came with article 3(2) of Act 4009/2011 (ironically introduced by PASOK government), which abolished the ban on police intervention, clarifying that “ordinary legislation is applied to criminal actions committed within Higher Education Institution (HEI) space”. Six years later, Act 4485/2017 reintroduced the prohibition on police intervention, except for a felony, a crime against life, or, in other cases, only with the permission of the dean’s council. Additionally, article 3(1) of this same act provided that “academic asylum is recognized for the guaranteeing of democratic values, academic freedoms in research and teaching, the free movement of ideas, the protection of the right to knowledge and learning against anyone who attempts to abolish it”. However, article 64 of Act 4623/2019 stipulated once again that “within the premises of HEIs, public authorities exercise all statutory responsibilities, including the duty to intervene due to the commission of criminal offences”.

The Current Predicament

The fact that the current New Democracy government did not limit itself to the abolition of university asylum with Act 4623/2019, but also proceeded with the establishment of a special police force for universities, can be explained by its desire to put an end to the radical legacy of the “metapolitefsi” era. The declared goal of this government is to rid university premises of movements, assemblies, events, and posters, as well as the circulation of publications. It is to discipline higher educational institutions and the student movement, which is opposed to the complete privatization of higher education and the transformation of universities into production sites of specialized docile scientists and workers who are seamlessly connected to the market. It is to consolidate a generalized culture of repression and reduction of democratic freedoms. This pervades the whole spectrum of legislative interventions in Greece in recent years.

The law in question was passed within such an environment. The government chose to proceed with its vote at the peak of the pandemic, when general restrictions on movement are in force. This choice, as is well known, contradicts the European Parliament resolution calling on national governments to “refrain from adopting measures with a strong impact on fundamental rights”, especially in a “situation where public health concerns do not allow proper democratic debate and secure protest”. [8] Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to claim that the enactment of this legislation on an issue that provoked reactions from almost the entire academic community during a period of pandemic and restricted movement constitutes an authoritarian move. What is more, there was no objective reason to expedite this legislative initiative as teaching has been taking place exclusively online for the past year, and, as a result, movement in universities (and consequently the possibility of crimes being committed, which is supposed to be the justification of this act) is negligible.

In Lieu of a Conclusion

The Greek government confronted the Covid-19 pandemic without strengthening the public health system. On the contrary, this year’s national budget cuts health funds by 570 million Euros. Additionally, the pandemic was turned into a vehicle for curbing opposition criticism, particularly through the scandalously selective funding of specific media outlets. Furthermore, the general restriction of movement is used daily as a tool to silence any criticism. Since November, movement in Greece is permitted only after sending a SMS text and only for six specific, restrictively defined reasons, which do not include movements necessary for exercising rights. In this manner, the restriction of movement implies the tacit and indirect (but actual) suspension of fundamental rights, simply not including these rights in the sanctioned justifications for movement. All in all, the ghost of a naked raison d’état, which signifies the state’s will to reduce freedoms of collective action and has nothing to do with the necessary care for public health in a pandemic, is now hovering over Greece. On this basis, the establishment of a special police force for universities reflects nothing but the authoritarian logic of the Greek government and its anxieties about shielding neoliberal policies from social reactions.

Charalambos Kourondis is currently conducting post-doctoral research at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

[1] In contemporary Greece, “university asylum” is a term used to signify the inviolability of the university space as a place of free circulation and protection of ideas.

[2] The Greek government’s misrepresentation resulted in an intervention by Oxford University’s University and College Union. See “Motion Formally Passed at Oxford UCU General Meeting on 26th January 2021” (26 January 2021), available at:

[3] Nikos Alivizatos, Les institutions politiques de la Grèce à travers les crises, 1972–1974 (Paris: Librairie générale de droit et de jurisprudence, 1979).

[4] For a description of the revolt see among others Chris Harman, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After, 2nd edition (London: Bookmarks, 1998), 305–9.

[5] On the transitional period that followed the collapse of the dictatorship see Antoine M. Pantélis, Les grands problèmes de la nouvelle Constitution hellénique (Paris: Librairie générale de droit et de jurisprudence, 1979) 87–153.

[6] On the essentially constituent character of this “Fifth Amending Parliament” see Georges Kaminis, La transition constitutionnelle en Grèce et en Espagne (Paris: Librairie générale de droit et de jurisprudence, 1993) 279–81.

[7] “Metapolitefsi”, literally “regime change”, signifies the period following the collapse of dictatorship on July 1974.

[8] See