Change exacts a heavy price

April 19, 1996

Spanish universities are struggling to broaden their curricula. Rebecca Warden reports from Valencia where the country's rectors drew up their rescue plan and where staff and students at the city's university express their views on the situation .

The co-ordinator of the CRUE survey and the person in charge of implementing new curricula at Valencia University is optimistic.

"Lots of things can be salvaged and I think we are moving in the right direction," says Francisco Morales, vice rector of academic affairs. He is probably better qualified to judge than most. He notes a big difference between the experience of large universities such as Madrid's Complutense, Seville or his own and that of smaller, newer universities such as Burgos or Girona.

Often created simultaneously with the reforms, new universities had no need to adapt. "For the older universities, the problem has been revamping our qualifications and changing a whole organisational culture," he says.

Dr Morales believes the ministry of education's original calculations for the new courses, setting a minimum of 300 credits for four year degrees or licenciaturas, were flawed, causing the excessive burden placed on students. When universities were asked to come up with the course contents, corporate interests only made matters worse.

"Departments wanted as big a slice of the cake as possible, the more credits the better, as this meant more lecturers," he says. For him, many of the new staff, taken on to ease the transition period, or to teach on over-full courses, will have to go when credits and course contents are slimmed down.

Finance remains the big question. Dr Morales believes past mistakes should not be repeated: "We accepted the myth of reforms at zero cost knowing it to be untrue."

The strain of introducing the reforms with no extra cash shows in many ways. Students now spend more hours on campus, generating higher demand for services such as libraries. A wider range of subject options means smaller classes, but each needs a room and a teacher.

"Imagine introducing 34 new syllabuses at once in a university with 65,000 students," he says, noting that Valencia's new law course had to be postponed last year as there was nowhere to teach. While the 39 universities surveyed had had 1,380 new courses approved, only 1,010 have so far been introduced, something due, Dr Morales suspects, to lack of resources.

Nevertheless, Dr Morales believes the changes suggested by the CRUE are appropriate and that the original thrust of the reforms is correct. He sees the speed with which universities have reacted to the problems as a hopeful sign. For him, the first reform was one imposed from above, with scant involvement of university staff.

This time, with discontent bubbling up from ground level, he thinks things may be different. "This is not just a movement of rectors," he says, "it is a movement of lecturers, who have been teaching the reform for the past three years and are aware of what problems need solving."


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