Lecturers in dispute over working conditions held up protest banners at the University of Barcelona's ceremony to mark the opening of the new academic year. At the neighbouring Pompeu y Fabre University's ceremony two days earlier lecturers handed out a list of grievances.
Contract teaching staff, officially called "assistants" or associate lecturers, complain they have no job security, minimal prospects and work similar hours to tenured professors for a much smaller pay packet. Officials at the University of Barcelona say that, while sympathetic to their plight, resources for a better deal are just not available.
The associates complain that although they participate fully in important research and administration, only teaching duties are paid. Employed on annual contracts for a maximum of five years, they complain of job instability and consequent lack of motivation. When contracts came up for renewal recently, helpers were told they were to be reclassified as part-time associate lecturers, and paid for only six hours teaching per week.
Net monthly pay, around 160,000 pesetas (Pounds 820) for a helper, would drop to 130,000 pesetas (Pounds 666). Permanent lecturers can earn 230,000 pesetas and professors are paid up to 300,000 pesetas per month. Despite new six-hour limits, assistants do not believe their workload will actually decrease. Curricula introduced as a result of higher education reform mean students now spend more hours in lectures and practicals.
Protest at the University of Barcelona comes mainly from the science faculty where some 40 assistants are refusing to sign new contracts.
Juan Maria Malapeira, vice rector of teaching staff, says that the number of permanent posts is conditioned by how many the education authorities are willing to fund.
Despite higher student numbers, "we have not been able to grow as we would wish," he said. He described the present part-time solution as a holding operation until reforms of university law in two years' time provided for a new kind of contract lecturer. Staff in dispute seem unconvinced. One assistant, who preferred to remain anonymous, criticised the Spanish system of life-long tenure.
"In other countries lecturers are obliged to be competitive, whereas here they get a job for life," he said. He believed assistants were a vital resource, and that his own department needed an extra member of staff. "If they throw me out too, then that will make two," he comments. Permanent teaching staff at Spanish universities are officially civil servants who gain tenure by passing competitive exams.
Many of today's lecturers arrived en masse as a result of the 1993 university reform law. Since then new permanent positions have been few and far between and short-term contract staff are increasingly used to teach a growing student population.
The University of Barcelona has 370 assistants out of a total 3,600 academics. The Polytechnic University of Catalonia employs 922 full and part-time associate lecturers out of a total of 1,454. The figure of the assistant was originally intended to allow PhD students to gain experience, as a step towards a lectureship.
Lack of mobility in a profession where the upper retirement age is officially 70 means many aspiring lecturers find the way ahead barred. "We don't want to be handed permanent jobs," said a second University of Barcelona helper, "all we are asking for is a chance to compete for them."
Spanish universities have adopted a variety of solutions to this problem in recent years. Some, including Madrid's Complutense and the University of the Basque Country have converted assistants into full-time associate lecturers. Most, including the Autonomous University of Barcelona, brought in part-time contracts. Many universities say lack of resources limit their room for manoeuvre. Some employees disagree. Isabel Martinez, union representative at the Pompeu y Fabre, estimates new contracts will mean an annual wage cut of 800,000 pesetas for contract staff. "It is a saving for the university," she says. "People are very worried."