Protesters scuffle with the police during a rally against government's planned education reform in Athens, August 24, 2011 (Reuters)
Greek lawmakers on Wednesday approved a reform to make the country's universities more competitive amid protests by students and academics rejecting the initiative as too business-oriented.
After last-minute haggling, and in a rare show of unity, the ruling Socialist party and the opposition Conservatives both backed the university bill in principle, with smaller nationalist and liberal parties adding support.
The reform, the second in four years, aims to improve the operation of universities, which has been chronically marked by wastage of state funds and nepotism, in a bid to reduce massive funds spent on overseas education.
The overhaul has been criticised by many academics and by left-wing political parties which refused to participate in talks with the government.
Critics say the overhaul puts undue emphasis on business-oriented degrees to the detriment of other academic disciplines less in demand by employers.
An attempt by the government to open university boards to outsiders such as business leaders has also proved controversial.
Several hundred students marched on parliament in Athens while another demonstration was held in Thessaloniki.
"We will not allow the government to further downgrade our lives," a protest organiser said, while others carried banners accusing the government of "turning universities into businesses."
The government is trying to break the power of party-run student groups which have influenced university politics for decades, controlling the election of directors, staff appointments and even examination grades.
Thousands of Greek families annually send their children to study abroad instead of choosing their own country's institutions which are regularly shut down by student occupations and protests.
Vandalism and looting at university laboratories during such protests is also commonplace, with police barred from intervening under laws enacted to protect freedoms after the fall of an army dictatorship in 1974.
Every attempt to regulate education generally raises protests in Greece.
In a speech to parliament late on Tuesday, Prime Minister George Papandreou said that a previous reform by his father Andreas to give students a say in how universities operated 30 years ago had been twisted beyond recognition.
"Student leaders have traded with professors who sought management posts. This backing was given in return for all sorts of concessions including grades," said Papandreou, who was education minister in 1988-9 and 1994-6.
"The purchase of consciences turned Greek universities into centres that do not teach morals and meritocracy but the disease of the Greek political system, clientelism," he said.