Towards an Orwellian Police-State Apparatus: Education Reform in Greece

by | 5 Apr 2021

On February 11th, 2021, the neoliberal government of New Democracy in Greece endorsed a reform bill for tertiary education, establishing a special police force for the surveillance of university campuses. The bill was adopted with 166 votes in favor (versus 132 against) and was strongly supported by the far right-wing populist Greek Solution party. Inter alia, Article 18 of the new act 4777/2021 provides for the establishment of 1,030 uniformed, however unarmed guards in Greece’s university campuses, who will be delegated the task to facilitate communication with the Greek Police Force and will have similar surveillance duties. The guards will be employed by the Ministry of Citizen Protection and will be controlled by the Greek Police Force in collaboration with university authorities. Although unarmed, these forces will be allowed to use clubs, handcuffs, and tear gases inside university campuses, and will be entitled to discipline and arrest students suspected of criminal acting. In addition to that, the new reform provides for the enhancement of entrance-control measures in university campuses and the establishment of electronic security systems (Article 12), such as surveillance with drones as well as indoor and outdoor cameras within campuses authorized by the Hellenic Data Protection Authority. 

 The bill soon generated a fiery uproar and led to vehement protests from a big segment of Greek society, mainly comprised of university students and higher education employees. The demonstrations that followed the new enforcement were confronted by police forces with numerous prosecutions, monetary penalties (due to breaking the lockdown measures in midst of the COVID-19 pandemic), and unprecedent levels of violence which are posing questions as to the orientation of the rule of law in Greece. Below, I am arguing that this reform was not an incidental decision in response to increasing criminality in campuses, but the climax of a series of events and policy-making that demonstrate the New Democracy government’s proclivity to employ surveillance techniques aligned with police-state ideologies.

The invention of the concept police-state (Polizeistaat) is usually attributed to the German jurist Robert von Mohl, who first introduced the term to German jurisprudence contrasting it with the constitutional state (Rechtsstaat) and the judicially activist state (Justizstaat). From a legal perspective, a police-state status is similar to martial law or the law imposed on a country by a state when civil government has broken down. Although the compound police-state has been traditionally used to characterize totalitarian regimes such as Hitler’s Nazi Germany, I am borrowing here the concept from Jack R. Greene who used it broadly, to define a regime where “terror, arbitrary arrest, torture, and murder are carried out in the interests of the state and the ruling class by police” (Greene, 1999: 599). Greene uses it as an adjective to denote governments that excessively use police force and surveillance as a technique of ruling different aspects of everyday life (Greene, 1999: 1004). 

The omnipresence of police surveillance in campuses under the new reform will have ramifications for the most prosaic aspects of daily life for Greek students and academic employees in a space wherein police presence has been historically banned. For decades, the relationship between police forces and Greek universities has been minimal at least, following the bloody suppression of students in November 1973 when the far-right military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974 used the army and police to smash a student protest at the Athens Polytechnic. The uprising escalated to an open revolt, which eventually ended in bloodshed in the early morning of 17 November after a series of incidences starting with a tank crashing through the gates of the Polytechnic. Since then, November 17th has been a commemoration day against authoritarianism in Greece and universities became an area of essential democratic values and freedom of expression wherein police forces have not been allowed to intervene. The immunity of university campuses from police entry, which is referred to in Greek as “university asylum”, has been one of the core values of Greek tertiary education and has been conceived as an inviolable and sacrosanct right for university students, passed into law by the Greek Parliament in 1982. The polytechnic uprising became a symbol of Greek democracy, and for decades police were banned from penetrating this asylum.

One of the first amendments of New Democracy, when it came to power in 2019, was the abolishment of campus immunity from police entry. Yet, it was not the first government that restricted the inviolable university asylum. The socialist government of PASOK had temporarily done the same in 2011, until the government of SYRIZA reintroduced in 2017 the ban of police entry in campuses with the exception of felonies or interventions upon request from the rectoral council. However, the latest amendments are certainly the first time surveillance reaches that far in Greek society – inside campus courtyards and classrooms. This is also the first time that, next to the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Citizen Protection have been delegated the responsibility to make decisions about the future of Greek education. The surveillance of campuses by non-university organs provided by the new education law has been characterized as unconstitutional, as it curtails both the academic and educational freedom and their manifestations, as well as the self-governing rule of public universities ensured in Article 16 of the Greek constitution

Seeing a democracy acting against its own constitution and employing police-state tactics on the pretext of fighting ‘anomie’ in universities reminds one of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 which illustrates a regime that uses the excuse of an “endless war” to justify police oppression and security cameras for purposes of mass surveillance in the shadow of the ubiquitously displayed maxim “Big Brother is watching you”. Yet, in the fictional narrative of 1984, the Thought Police was secretively acting, while in the forthcoming university reality, surveillance and police violence will be conspicuously occurring and legitimated by governmental decision-making. The Greek government has insisted that the aforementioned education amendments are in line with its general ambition of Europeanisation and modernization of the Greek society, while arguing that the new university bill has been modelled after policies employed by renowned foreign academic institutions. It is noteworthy that European universities in general do not have their own police department, but mainly employ small (private) security forces, with minimal enforcement duties administrated by university councils. Indeed, American campus police is a real phenomenon, although a rather different story. The authoritarian character of this reform was widely criticized by foreign media and academic employees of foreign universities such as the Sheffield UCU and the Oxford UCU, making clear that special police forces have no place in universities, and highlighting that the issue of security should solely rest upon each university’s own authorities. They further expressed their solidarity with the students and academic employees that oppose the new legislation and highlighted that increasing surveillance will not heal the wounds of Greek higher education which has long now been afflicted by underfunding, constant reduction of workforce and other substantial issues.

The latest reform is the apogee of a series of measures that make clear the government’s intentions towards the enforcement of a strict security apparatus grounded on police-state tactics. Central to this policy was the “clean-up” of the “anomie” in the leftist neighborhood of Exarcheia and the evictions of refugee and migrant squats. This ‘clean-up’ campaign was referred to as “vacuum cleaning policy” against refugees and leftists-anarchists, whom the representative of the Greek Police Confederation publicly characterized as “annoying dust” and ‘garbage’ respectively. Beyond campuses, the past decades have witnessed numerous cases of excessive use of police force and violations in the policing of demonstrations include torture and other ill-treatment during arrest or detention or even misuse of firearms. Videos of immense police violence against civilians have become viral on social media and attracted global attention. About three months ago, a repulsive video was released showing a riot police officer removing and destroying a flower bouquet from the memorial for Alexandros Grigoropoulos, a 15-year boy who was shot dead by a policeman on December 6th, 2008. Over the last years, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has several times found Greece in violation of Articles 2 (right to life) or 3 (prohibition of torture or other ill-treatment) concerning human rights violations by law enforcement officials. In some of these cases, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) found Greece also in violation of provisions of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Greek authorities often admit the existence of human rights abuses by law enforcement officials, but they classify them as “isolated incidents”, without acknowledging them as a fundamental systemic problem and adopting a pragmatic approach towards its resolution. 

Realistically speaking, should the Greek government have been interested in ameliorating public tertiary education, they would have instead hired academic staff or increased the expenditures dedicated to education, which remains underfinanced and constantly below Europe’s average standards. Using police-state surveillance methods to respond to fundamental university challenges is fueling a growing anxiety that Greek democracy is moving closer to Orwell’s 1984. Not much different from the Party in 1984, the New Democracy government wields total power “for its own sake” over the inhabitants, woven with its law-and-order stance. Transforming public universities into an area of ubiquitous surveillance, fear and oppression will have detrimental impacts on constitutionally protected values and may prove to be another step towards the consolidation of an atmosphere of terror and restriction in Greek society. To extenuate this stance, Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis recently stated in Parliament that, under the new education act, “it is not the police that enters the universities, but democracy”. To what extent police responsiveness in campus will be focused on promoting democratic values and serving the students rather than prioritizing elites is a self-answered question. The real question stands as to how far these gradually spreading surveillance measures will reach and for how long the mass protests will continue and the student movement will stand against compromising. Although Orwell’s 1984ends with an unhappy ending, the unprecedently large demonstrations against the new Greek education reform may close this narrative with a glimmer of hope that the Greek society, unlike Winston Smith in the end of 1984, has not yet “loved the Big Brother”.

Selected Bibliography

Greene, J. R. 2007. Encyclopedia of Police Science: 2-volume set, Routledge, New York

Von Mohl R. 1829. Constitutional law of the Kingdom of Württemberg, Laupp, Tübingen


  1. Unfortunately, the script is the same for Latin America universities (Brasil, in 70´s – Argentina, in 60´s). It shows that knowledge and dissident construction of ideas must be guard in Constitutional Laws; democratic expressions don´t have to be cut by simple political proposals or legislation!!!!!

  2. I agree with you


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