Professor Gatsios, we hear very good words for your term as Rector of Athens University of Economics and Business. Which do you think should be the role of universities today in our country and how could they contribute to the country’s development and to overcoming the crisis we are experiencing?
Thank you for your kind words and for the opportunity you are giving me to communicate with your readers. Especially, as a man coming from Epirus, I am delighted to communicate with Cretans. It is known that since the time of our national political leader, Eleftherios Venizelos, and the Balkan wars, the links between Epirus and Crete have been very strong.
During my term as Rector, Athens University of Economics and Business adopted four pillars of values, which condense not only the timeless vision of the Institution, but also the way according to which we operated during my term as Rector: Excellence, Innovation, Extroversion and Social Contribution. These values show a path, which I think should be followed by Higher Education in our country.
The basic idea is that the mission of universities is not confined to the education of students and the creation of new scientific knowledge. Their mission expands to the contribution they should make to the country’s development through the utilization of the results of research and innovation and their support in the development of dynamic and socially responsible entrepreneurship. Universities are required to contribute to the technological modernization of production, to the creation of new products and services and to the creation of jobs and wealth. They are also required to equip our young people not only with knowledge and skills, but also with the philosophy of creativity as the decisive factor for progress at a personal and a national level.
Today more than ever we need extrovert universities, tied with the society and the economy -especially the economy of the regions in which they operate, in order to contribute to their development. The regions’ problems need to be the Universities’ problems and the solutions should also be their own concern. We also need universities that are open to students from other countries, particularly of the wider region, turning our country from a student exporting country to an importing one.
In short, we need universities that meet the needs of our country and its citizens.
Recently you were on a business trip to Israel, together with other university Rectors, where you visited local universities. What so special did you see there?
Israel, through a systematic effort of years, has linked in a very effective and productive way the universities and the research they conduct with entrepreneurship. Innovations developed in university laboratories find their way into production. Indeed, the applied research conducted is largely driven by the real needs and problems of the country. The vast majority of startups are created in universities, and many of them have become global businesses.
Let’s put it differently. The fact that Israel, a country with a similar population to Greece, has managed to become one of the leading forces worldwide on technology is not something that happened by chance. It took place to a significant extent due to the cooperation between universities and enterprises, and of course, due to the general spirit, which permeates the country and its institutions and which encourages and rewards innovation and entrepreneurship.
We can learn a lot from Israel and the good practices developed in its universities.
University of Crete is a pioneer in research in Greece. However, what makes us as a country remain far from the Israeli model that you described earlier?
University of Crete is indeed one of the best universities in our country and in some of the scientific disciplines it serves it is a pioneer. Generally, the country has university departments and programs of high quality -this is proved by the progress and recognition that our graduates enjoy abroad- and that can become much better. At the same time, however, our country has departments and programs in universities and technical institutions scattered throughout the country that should not be there, as they were created and are operating not due to the needs of the economy and of our young people, but for reasons of petty interests and as part of the patronage state.
There are many things that keep us away from the Israeli model or the models of other countries in the group of which, however, we want to belong: they, unlike us, have developed the link between universities and businesses steadily since the ‘50s, the support structures they have created have matured, managerial yet strategic matters, such as patent rights in universities, have already been resolved, and so on.
If, however, I should summarize in one sentence what keeps us away from that model, I would say that it is the “moving spirit”; a spirit of extroversion, innovation and creativity, which would encourage and strengthen the cooperation of universities with companies and organizations in the public and private sector of the economy for their mutual benefit; a spirit that would motivate our young people to identify opportunities and to think of innovative solutions to real problems and needs in order to develop sustainable business initiatives. This “spirit” is very weak in Greece. Instead, what dominates is the spirit of introspection, of hostility towards entrepreneurship, of continuous bureaucratic legislations, of framework laws and circulars, which “solve” everything in pages after pages of paper, without actually solving anything and without offering anything.
As I said before, we need to revisit as a society the role of universities as a whole. We need universities that click together with the needs of the country. Universities that are liberated from the suffocating embrace of the state and its suffocating bureaucracy -because in Greece we have no public universities as Britain has, but state universities, branches of the Ministry of Education. We need universities that will be assessed and funded on the basis of the fulfillment or not of the targets I mentioned above and will be left undistracted to pursuit these objectives. We need universities integrated into a national plan towards the economic and spiritual uplifting and the progress of the country.
Our island, Crete, recently had a strong presence in protests against the new insurance and tax bill. Which do you think are the main problems of the agricultural world today and how could the primary sector in Crete and Greece in general be strengthened?
I will start by saying that in Greece participation in demonstrations is not always a good sign. And I say this in full knowledge, for the following reason. At least until the recent tax and pension reform, the agricultural sector, compared to other sectors of our economy, has perhaps been the least impacted by the bankruptcy crisis in the Greek economy. However, no one believes that under the present conditions agriculture could help lift the country out of crisis. Why is that? Because -I am very sorry to say this- in agriculture, although the unacceptable attitude represented by the motto “all the weight, all the money” was introduced by the political patronage state, it was, however, gladly accepted by the agricultural sector that turned it into its dominant attitude.
That is an attitude that is neither honorable for the Greek agricultural world, nor positive for the future if it continues to prevail. The farmer must be safe and insured, but should not be a civil servant! Neither an employee of foreign organizations! The farmer should not have and neither should they want to have these roles. Fortunately for Crete, although it has not remained unscathed by this mentality, at least it is infected much less than other regions. This is perhaps due to historical reasons and, also, the microclimate and the geomorphologic characteristics of the location.
A key issue for our agriculture is to upgrade its production and improve its productivity. For example, in Crete agriculture contributes to the creation of approximately 9% of the Region’s GDP and employs 19.5% of the economically active population. The improvement in productivity should be combined with improvements in marketing, maintenance, packaging, transportation to the final consumer domestically and abroad, as well as with the quantitative and qualitative improvement of the processing of our agricultural products. As for the application of modern production and marketing methods and, in general, the upgrading of our agricultural production, connecting with local research centers is essential -this is something that brings us back to our previous discussion about universities and their role.
It is a fact, however, that the Greek agriculture has no future with the current logic that prevails in the agricultural world. To some extent, it is the responsibility of the state to help the agricultural world to modernize and adapt to the new conditions of the world market, by taking advantage of the great opportunities that it now offers and by exploiting the excellent advantages of the Greek land and the Greek climate. But the main and most crucial thing to understand and never forget is that the qualitative improvement of the Greek agriculture, which will bring prosperity to the Greek provinces, lies within the responsibility and duty of the agricultural world itself. It will be the outcome of our own labor and creativity and not of our adherence to the EU programs. After so many billions subsidies and aid from the EU it is unacceptable and unjustifiable for the agricultural world to appear with the mentality of “an orphan in the hands of a stranger” and complain and whine because the future seems to be a dead end! The populists of different types and colors who “support and cry” for the agricultural world and push it in that direction offer no assistance to it. Instead, they push it towards extinction.
We need to talk honestly with the agricultural world so that they are able to understand both the risks and the opportunities that exist, but also to understand and admit to their mistakes. What gives me hope, however, are the new farmers who seem to have a different mentality, much more dynamic, more independent from statism and more ambitious than the previous generations.
Apart from primary production, what else do you think could be a competitive advantage in a Mediterranean place like ours to boost the much-needed growth?
The secret of development is the intelligence that is embedded in products and services. The better someone applies this, the more progress they achieve. Based on this I do not even know if the distinction in primary, secondary and tertiary or services sectors is any longer valid. What is important is to create added value, which meets actual needs, and for this to happen intellectual and creative effort is required.
The state, of course, should also play its part so that we have products of high added value. New infrastructure should be created and the old one should be improved. It is unacceptable that the infamous “Northern Road Axis” of Crete remains in the state that it is –it is a mockery that has lasted for decades. In my opinion, what is also required is another commercial port in the southern part of the island, which will be “looking at” the north coast of Africa and will be the natural link connecting the trade flows between North Africa-Suez and Europe. In addition to the organic links that have to be developed between the education institutions and the needs of the local economy, what is also required is the expansion in the use of new technologies, the elimination of small and large obstacles that stifle entrepreneurship and have become larger because of the bankruptcy (taxes, charges, bureaucracy etc.) Another requirement is the mobilization of the administrative and professional institutions so that they become more friendly and helpful for the new entrepreneur, the farmer and the professional.
An economy must be developed utilizing whatever advantages it has, and Crete is a blessed place in this regard. From organic farming to eco-tourism, and from renewable energy sources to medical technology, there is a huge growth potential in every sector and in every industry. What is important is that this potential is utilized. Instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, we must act and take action to improve our lives and our destiny.
You have claimed in your writings that the real problem of the country is productivity, not austerity. Please explain to us in a few words, because in recent years we are used to hearing the opposite.
It would be very useful and constructive, I think, if people bombarded with questions anyone who talks about “austerity”, asking them to explain what exactly they mean. Nobody has ever explained it to me, though! Do we live in austerity now? We are still borrowing to pay back the interest of the loans we had taken before bankruptcy and the memoranda. Is this “austerity”? Even if we had no debt at all and no need to pay a single penny in interest, we would still have to borrow as our primary expenditures (expenditure without interest) fall short of our revenue. Is this “austerity”? If so, what exactly is the opposite?
Unfortunately, this notion about austerity is the most absurd thing the Greek society has believed in since the foundation of the Modern Greek state. We went bankrupt and were nearly destroyed because we borrowed excessively to consume rampantly, and once we got to the point that this could no longer continue some began to demand “austerity”! As if nothing had happened in Greece before, as if bankruptcy and collapse never existed! And of course, all those generous and open-handed people do not explain how we could borrow more money so as not to live in “austerity” and what exactly their policy would be. Nor do they tell us how this complaint about “austerity” is connected with the coinciding demand for debt reduction. Have you ever heard of anyone in real life who owes a lot of money and cannot pay it back, who is asking for their debt to be written off, but at the same time they wish to borrow more because they are having a hard time with what they have? These absurdities are part of the opinion you have mentioned and, unfortunately, they hold sway on part of the public opinion.
We went bankrupt because we produce less than we consume and because the loans we took in the past were not invested productively so that they offer us income, with which we would serve our debts and we would prosper in the long term but, instead, they were turned into consumption, which does not offer any income. This is what I mean when I say that our problem today is a production problem. As I often say: next to our national motto “freedom or death” we should now add the motto “production or death”! There are 1,200,000 or more unemployed people and they cannot find a job because there is no production. Previously, the largest part of these people was employed, directly or indirectly, in industries related to consumption, which were financed with loans. No nation, however, and no man can live on loans forever. This is what the demagogues and populists of the “austerity” theory are hiding from the Greek people turning its attention away from what must be changed within the country. However, it is in the interior of the country where our success or failure to get out of the maze, which we have entered at our own risk, will be determined.
What kind of role could university teachers like you play in this endeavor?
The role of university teachers can -and must- be to carry out their scientific research, each in their field, and to place their findings to the disposal of the society and the nation contributing to the progress and prosperity of our people. In the social and, especially, the economic sciences this means that they should explain to the citizens some elementary and basic truths, after they grasp them themselves, which the variegated versions of populism with the assistance of “academic technocrats” concealed artfully for so many years, particularly in the Ministry of Finance. To speak the truth, that is, about the real condition of the country, contributing in this way to our individual and national self-awareness, -a prerequisite for the uplifting of our country. I am not sure, though, whether all my colleagues do that. For this and other reasons, I suggest that you peruse a book that I preface: Dimitrios Ioannou’s, Dissecting the Crisis (Ανατέμνοντας την Κρίση) by Papazisis Publishers.
 No interest about the products’ quality