Multiple births stir doubts

July 18, 1997

Private universities are labouring against opposition, reports Rebecca Warden from Barcelona

PRIVATE universities are on the increase in Spain. There are now ten, teaching some 70,000, or just 1.7 per cent, of students, compared with 44 state universities.

The balance could soon be shifting, however, as a further seven private universities are in various stages of completion in Avila, Barcelona, Mondragon, Murcia, Pontevedra, Segovia and Vic.

Private universities fall into two categories. The first is the traditional religious institution. There are four Catholic universities controlled by religious orders, such as the Jesuits in the case of the Basque Country's Deusto Uni-versity, or Opus Dei which runs Pamplona's University of Navarra. They emphasise Christian values in their teachings but nevertheless offer the usual range of degrees.

In the second category are the newer, private universities which have come into being following a 1991 decree that set out their obligations and status. These institutions are private companies run for profit and may or may not have an explicitly ideological character.

The private universities are a diverse bunch. Some cater for the elite, whereas others provide a refuge for those who did not make the grade for a place at a state university. But they have some things in common. All of them charge substantially higher fees than their state counterparts, averaging about 100,000 pesetas (Pounds 400) a month, although most offer some grants.

With the exception of Salamanca, Deusto and Navarra, they tend to be small and all pride themselves on offering more personalised attention to students, and lower student-lecturer ratios than state institutions.

Demand-driven, the range of degrees offered usually includes popular courses such as business studies, MBAs, law, journalism or translating and interpreting. All private universities have to fulfil certain minimum standards to obtain official recognition and their course curricula are submitted to regional government for approval in the same way as state universities.

With so many complex interests at stake, the birth pangs of these private universities are often controversial, if not downright painful. Some universities have been created by crusading local mayors who can either be seen as striving to inject new life into the local economy and stop the brain-drain of local youth, or as carrying out populist education politics with scant regard for regional planning.

The private universities themselves often define their role as providing a useful service to the community by responding to demand the state universities are unable to satisfy.

Their detractors sometimes describe their motivation as unseemly eagerness to put their ideological imprint on impressionable young minds. They complain that they divert resources away from the cash-strapped state system.

The reactions of the established state universities can also be taken either way: are they motivated by corporatism and fear of competition, or by a healthy concern to prevent academic standards from falling?

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