PM chooses an 'unknown' as minister

May 24, 1996

New Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar's choice of a relatively unknown politician as education minister has left many academics wondering what she will have in store for universities.

Esperanza Aguirre is a law graduate who has spent most of her political career at Madrid City Council in charge of cultural affairs and the environment. She will now head a new ministry formed by the merger of the old-style ministry of education and science and that of cultural affairs by a right-wing government dominated by the Popular Party (PP). As Mrs Aguirre settles into office, academics are in the dark about her plans for higher education.

"We just have a big question mark," says Judith Astelarra, dean of politics and sociology at Barcelona's Autonomous University. "The PP's electoral programme was very general."

What is known about Mrs Aguirre is her enthusiasm for privatising municipal services during her stint at Madrid City Council and that she is a fan of Margaret Thatcher.

One of her first pronouncements on taking office was on the need for private universities to compete alongside state institutions. "Monopolies are not a good thing even if they are providing a public service," she said.

Non public sector higher education is minimal in Spain, composed of nine private universities, often of a religious orientation.

While the prime minister has stated his commitment to public services, one of his first moves has been to announce a 200,000 million peseta (Pounds 1,000 million) cut in public spending for the coming year.

Funding for education in general is unlikely to be affected as this is largely controlled by Spain's 17 regional governments. However, money for research is allocated by central government and so could be in the line of fire. "We are somewhat worried about research," says Josep Font, director general of universities at the Catalan regional government and himself a university lecturer. While he believes it is still early days, he interprets Mrs Aguirre's professed admiration for Lady Thatcher as "a bad omen".

Jose Maria Mato, head of the scientific research council, sounds a more cautious note. He points out that the PP's electoral manifesto was vague on science and research policy. "Obviously, as a scientist, I am none too pleased to see the word 'science' dropped from the title of the ministry," he says. "But we have to wait and see the budgets."

Spanish research is considered unlikely to continue to expand as it did under the previous Socialist administration. Research funding grew substantially over the past decade, climbing from 0.3 per cent of gross national product ten years ago to 1 per cent today. During this time the number of researchers more than trebled and Dr Mato estimates that the output of published scientific papers increased tenfold.

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