Insular Spanish academy threatened by reforms

March 1, 2002

THES reporters examine appointment systems worldwide:

Legislation is radically changing the way Spanish universities select their staff. Under a law that came into force on January 14, would-be academics must pass a new "fitness" exam administered by central government.

Universities may then choose their staff as they think fit from this pool of approved lecturers.

The Universities Act also creates a new post - five-year contracts leading to a permanent position but without tenure or civil-servant status. This is meant to give more flexibility and to open opportunities for dedicated researchers in universities.

The previous system for academic appointments had been criticised as being rife with cronyism and inertia and often acting to keep out the best candidates. "We are trying to introduce a more rigorous, competitive selection process," a ministry of education spokesperson said.

The act was bitterly fought by university leaders, staff and students and by giant public demonstrations, but the appointments system has been singled out for special criticism.

The exam will be judged by a board of seven specialists selected at random. Previously, appointments were decided by five academics, two chosen by the university department. Castro Mendez, vice-rector of academic staff at Santiago de Compostela University, is worried that excluding universities from the initial selection reduces accountability. "Universities are the ones most interested in hiring quality, especially when in future some funding will depend on staff performance."

The number of lecturers approved will be tailored to the number of jobs at universities. Francisco Espada, head of universities at trades union Comisiones Obreras, believes this will cause problems. "If there is a limited number of candidates, you are forcing some universities to take someone they don't want, so what happens to the ones no one wants?" he said.

Fewer approvals could also mean that big universities in the major cities get the pick of the bunch, while small universities in provincial towns have difficulty keeping staff. "It could mean a continuous game of musical chairs," Professor Mendez said.

But opposition is not unanimous. The Association for the Advancement of Spanish Science and Technology, one of the most vocal groups in calling for more transparency, believes the changes are an improvement. Its president, Luis Rull, said they would "act as a quality filter".

Most people welcome the new contracts, which will give universities and educational authorities much more flexibility. "This is something we have been fighting for for a long time," Mr Rull said.

The law has also opened tenured posts to foreign academics. There are no official statistics, but the number of foreign lecturers at Spanish universities is thought to be very low, and they are concentrated in language departments. There are several reasons for this. The quality of life in Spain is high, but academic salaries are low. A lecturer with tenure can expect to earn €30,050 (£18,400) a year, while a professor may earn up to €40,000. Moreover, jobs are not advertised internationally.

Finally, academics in Spain are not particularly mobile. It is common for a PhD student to become a trainee lecturer and then gain a permanent job at the university he or she entered as an undergraduate. Critics of the system say that personal contacts are more important than a person's record when it comes to getting a job.

"Even for someone from another Spanish university, it is difficult as you have to have support from someone inside the department," said Alan Mackie, a lecturer in chemical engineering at Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona.

He arrived from Scotland 18 months ago and is one of just four foreigners out of a total of 28. "But my department is an exception as it has a policy of looking for people from outside Spain. The norm is to keep the people who have done their PhD or their postdoc in the department," he said.

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