Reform teeters on the brink

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 Spanish Conference of University Rectors has presented the government with a blueprint to rescue the country's faltering higher education reforms.

Since new curricula began to be introduced in universities in 1992, students and academics have been struggling to adapt.

By the early 1980s the university system was in dire need of modernisation. While the country changed beyond recognition over the past 20 years, universities remained highly centralised and inflexible, offering qualifications in a narrow range of subjects. As the body of knowledge increased, new areas could only be fitted into the curriculum as specialities within a wider field.

The Law of University Reform, passed in 1983, aimed to give universities greater autonomy and allow them to introduce new courses more in tune with the specific needs of each region. While a national core syllabus, accounting for 65 per cent of course content, was set for each degree, institutions were given a reasonably free hand to design and organise their courses as they saw fit. Implementation of new syllabuses began in the early 1990s and, by 1995, more than 1,000 new courses were on offer.

While it is still early days, it seems the experiment has had mixed results. On the plus side, the overhaul of courses has produced up-to-date contents and introduced practicals. The range of qualifications has widened significantly and universities have exercised their new-found autonomy, though some might say too freely. Students are now able to select parts of their courses and their course loads have gone up.

However, many believe the increase has been excessive and will dash hopes of bringing the traditional five-year Spanish degree closer to the European average of four-year qualifications. Measures to introduce more flexibility and wider choice into course structures have given rise to a mushrooming of short specialised course units with little overall coherency. With many students now into their third or fourth year of the new curricula, reports are beginning to surface in the Spanish press detailing exam results little better or sometimes worse than under the old system.

One major issue not discussed when the rectors met in Valencia was funding. While funding increased threefold during the last ten years of socialist rule, expansion ground to a halt in 1992 when recession began to bite.

But, the freeze on resources coincided with the start of the new syllabuses in universities. Institutions were left to cope with the upheaval of change as well as far greater demands on staff and other resources with no extra money.

Pedro Ruiz, rector of Valencia University says: "In spite of the considerable efforts of the last ten years, Spanish universities are still below levels of other European countries. Without extra funds, the reform won't work."

It is the first time the CRUE has presented government with a common front since its creation in 1994. Most rectors seemed convinced that the substance of the reforms is not the main problem, rather the manner in which they are being introduced.

Juan Ramon Medina, rector of the University of Seville, says: "We are not starting a counter-reform as the reforms have improved our universities. We need to take the reforms a step further."

Faced with growing unease, the rectors commissioned the University of Valencia to carry out a survey to highlight the problems. Compiled with input from 39 state and private universities, the report distinguishes between mistakes in the overall legal framework and errors in the ways universities have chosen to implement change.

Pilar Monreal, vice rector of teaching at the University of Girona, tends towards the latter view. "The philosophy is good," she says, "but the way in which this has been organised in universities is where it has gone most badly wrong." The report provides the basis for a series of recommendations agreed by the CRUE, with the priority on reducing students' heavy workloads and thus making four-year degrees a real possibility. The rectors suggest reducing hours of class attendance from ten to seven hours per credit and cutting the number of credits needed to complete a degree. Other suggestions involve introducing generalist courses common to various degrees in the first two years, with highly specialised courses kept for postgraduates, and avoiding excessive fragmentation by discouraging modules with low credit values.


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