Reign in Spain has changed

March 15, 1996

In the wake of the recent general elections, academics in Spain are following political developments with a keen interest. Many are trying to gauge what the coming of a right-wing government, after almost 14 years of socialist rule, will mean for their universities.

The elections saw the right-wing Popular Party win by a small majority, but not enough to govern alone. Alliance with smaller parties is therefore essential if the PP is to form a government. With its 16 seats, right-wing Catalan nationalist party Convergence and Union (CU) might seem a prime candidate. Nevertheless, after two years of very public attacks on Catalan nationalism by the centralist PP, CU is now in no mood to bury the hatchet and build a coalition government.

The PP's pre-election manifesto on higher education would certainly seem to herald drastic change. It proposes reforming how lecturers gain tenure; changing the university entrance examination; increasing the power of rectors and heads of faculty over collective government bodies; radically changing the university catchment system to favour greater student mobility between Spain's autonomous regions; and introducing student loans.

But such ideas are highly controversial in some quarters, notably the key region of Catalonia. Moreover, Spain's federal structure of 17 regional governments means central government's power over education is in any case diminishing.

Andres Ollero, PP education spokesman, tipped by the Spanish press as possibly the next minister of education, believes there has been progress under the last government, such as a significant increase in student numbers and funding for research.

"However, growth has been achieved at the expense of other priorities, such as maintaining student/teacher ratios," he said.

Mr Ollero also favours amending the cornerstone of the Socialist higher education reforms, the 1983 university reform law (LRU), to give more power of decision to rectors and faculty heads instead of the current model which also involves academic and student representatives.

"The law reproduces the self-governing university model typical of 1968 - everyone decides about everything, no matter what is being discussed," he says. "This is something which was fashionable in Europe for a while but which has since been put right."

Mr Ollero thinks standards among teaching staff have dropped, due to universities favouring their own staff over outside candidates for permanent teaching posts.

"When it comes down to it, where the candidate is from ends up being the decisive factor," he says.

This charge is hotly contested by academics and other politicians. "It's nonsense", says Enric Canela, vice rector of Organisation and Finance at the University of Barcelona. He points out that there are usually five or six candidates for every job.

He holds that, even if Mr Ollero's claims were true, the extremely low number of new tenured posts created in recent years means the effect on the overall quality of academic staff would be negligible. Dr Canela believes that, in reality, as the number of temporary posts have mushroomed in recent years, competition for tenure is very fierce.

Joan Albalges, commissioner for universities and research (the equivalent of higher education minister in the CU-dominated Catalan government), is also very critical of the PP proposals, describing them as "totally retrograde".

He believes they show a clear desire to centralise power over higher education once more and oblige universities to conform to a single, uniform model. For him, this not only goes against the principle of university autonomy, but also flies in the face of a generalised process of devolving power to the regions during more than a decade of socialist rule.

While he accepts a national legal framework should provide a "certain equivalency" between Spanish universities, he believes individual universities must be given even more autonomy in future to enable them to modernise.

"We must avoid allowing laws from central government to tell universities how they should select their staff or distribute their students. These subjects are not negotiable," he says - in a clear allusion to current PP-CU talks on forming a pact.

So, while on paper the Spanish election results may seem to announce a major shake-up of Spain's university system, the demands of realpolitik could well reduce the new government's room for manoeuvre.

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