universities in Spain have reached an understanding with the education ministry that could enable long-awaited reforms to go ahead after a year of stalemate.
A working group of rectors and government officials has finally defined what constitutes a credit in undergraduate degrees. The credit had been a sticking point in negotiations between Spain's rightwing government and university leaders since last April.
Many academics hope the reforms will be back on track after a stormy year of strained relations between the academic community and Spain's combative education minister, Esperanza Aguirre.
Until now a credit could only be earned by ten hours' attendance at lectures and practicals. The latest idea is to give universities more flexibility in defining credits, allowing up to three hours' work done outside lecture theatres to be taken into account.
Changes are needed to correct mistakes in an earlier reform of university curricula that has been working its way through the system since 1992. While the original reforms helped modernise universities, one unintended result is that students have seen their workload become unbearably heavy.
Most academics share this view. Lluis Jofre, vice rector of academic policy at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, said: "There is a wide consensus that students had been given an excessive workload."
Other problems include excessive fragmentation of courses, dense subjects squashed into too few hours, too many exams and an overall scarcity of resources to ease the transition from old to new.
In December 1996 the Spanish Conference of University Rectors and the Universities' Council agreed on recommendations to tackle these problems. However, splits in the ministry of education, culminating in the sacking of secretary of state for universities Fernando Tekeerina last July, had brought the reform process to a standstill.
If the political problems have really eased, university recommendations for change could be law by summer. Many university leaders are hoping to have some of the changes in place ready for the next intake of students in October.
"This agreement is good news," said Francisco Morales, vice rector of academic affairs at the University of Valencia. "Although it is two years late and is basically the same range of measures as those recommended by the rectors at the time."
Valencia has been active in diagnosing problems with the new curricula, carrying out a survey of 30 universities in 1995 and organising a special rectors' meeting to present results in March 1996.
After much debate, the university approved its own plan for revising the curricula of its 40 qualifications in October last year. It recommended reversing a reform shortening most courses, except science and technology, to four years and reestablishing five.
It wants core courses common to different degrees. "We are aiming for a greater degree of interconnection," said Professor Morales.
He also favours reducing the total amount of credits that make up a degree from the government limit of 60-90 credits. Most universities opt for about 65.
Professor Morales believes credit totals should be adjustable according to the subject being studied. Students of humanities, for instance, could be expected to do more work on their own while science or engineering students may need to clock up more hours in the laboratory.
The Polytechnic University of Catalonia has sought to build on the earlier reform. It was one of the first to draft guidelines at the time of implementation in 1991 and has just finished reviewing the results.
Professor Jofre said there was a fundamental difference in the way the technical universities decided to implement the original reforms compared to their larger, more generalist counterparts.
When drafting the reforms in the late 1980s, the polytechnics mainly opted to maintain five-year degrees rather than moving closer to the European model of four. "We believe our original aims are still valid, so we are looking to update our curricula rather than go backwards," said Professor Jofre. He admits there are still problems.
The university's solutions include setting a maximum number of course units a student can do each year and encouraging the use of continuous assessment rather than evaluation methods based solely on examinations.
The review process has outlined other goals. These include improving the paths from secondary to higher education, giving a greater value to students' own study and tuning the new curricula to the job market.
Professor Jofre welcomed the signs of a new consensus. "Everyone had the feeling that the Universities' Council had not taken a single operative decision since the spring. Maybe now we can make up for lost time."