Spain eyes reforms as ‘intellectual giant’ heads to ministry

Left government wants post-austerity funding revival and better careers for academics, with Manuel Castells appointed universities minister

January 13, 2020
Source: Getty

Spain’s new left-wing coalition government comes to power planning to restore university funding after austerity and introduce wide-ranging sector reforms, with “intellectual giant” and critic of “statist uniformity” Manuel Castells chosen as universities minister.

Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) prime minister, last week narrowly won a confidence vote that will create a minority coalition government with Podemos, the left-wing populist party founded in 2014 by political science academics from the Complutense University of Madrid.

Under the new government, the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities will be – controversially – split in two, with a PSOE ministerial appointee overseeing science and innovation and Podemos nominee Professor Castells overseeing universities.

Urban sociology and communications scholar Professor Castells, who is now based at the University of Southern California after spending 24 years at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of notable works including The Rise of the Network Society and the choice of Ada Colau, the Barcelona mayor whose party is allied to Podemos in Catalonia.

As a columnist for La Vanguardia, Catalonia’s leading newspaper, Professor Castells has previously written that in Spain, “statist uniformity hinders the diversification of universities”.

Spanish university funding was hit under the austerity regime of the right-wing People’s Party, which governed between 2011 and 2018, while there have been long-standing concerns about the effects of rigid state bureaucracy in universities, where lecturers are civil servants and red tape hinders the recruitment of foreign academics.

The PSOE-Podemos coalition agreement commits to “simplification” of procedures for accrediting new degrees, a new university law guaranteeing “adequate financing and sufficient resources to modernise the university”, restoring tuition fees to pre-financial crisis levels, increasing student grants and allocating them on the basis of financial need rather than academic criteria, measures to help institutions “attract and retain” academics and reducing the “precariousness” of employment in universities.

Jose Martinez-Sierra, director of the Real Colegio Complutense at Harvard University, which promotes collaboration with the Spanish higher education system, and a former adviser to Spanish education and universities ministers, said that the “most urgent” challenge was “to preserve and strengthen the primarily public higher education model” that has achieved “universal access” in the 40 years since the restoration of Spanish democracy.

Professor Martinez-Sierra, Jean Monnet ad personam professor for the study of European Union law and government at Harvard, added that previous conservative governments “have imperilled this model” by slashing funding and carrying out “the most brutal hike on tuition and other fees during Spanish democracy”, and by backing “a discourse of disparagement of public universities while allowing and increasing the creation of private universities”.

The other key “structural challenge” that the Spanish university system faces focused on “how, keeping this public system of universal access, it can achieve excellence”, which would require competitive funding in research and knowledge transfer, Professor Martinez-Sierra continued.

He added: “If someone has the legitimacy, vision, and capacity to undertake it, that is Professor Castells.”

Jon Altuna, vice-rector of Mondragon University – a cooperative university in the Basque Country focused on vocational education and applied research – called for “a much more flexible accreditation procedure based on granting more autonomy to universities”, allowing the creation of new degrees, and new policies on lifelong learning.

But he suggested that the minority coalition government would “find it difficult to obtain the necessary political consensus to reform the Spanish University Law, which will be required if they want to make structural changes in the system” such as on career development and funding.

The figure who will lead on this challenge, Professor Castells, “is an intellectual giant, one of the most influential urban scholars in history, and a rare scholar whose work has shaped debates on every continent”, said Eric Klinenberg, Helen Gould Shepard professor in social science at New York University, who was taught by the Spanish academic as a doctoral student at Berkeley.

At Berkeley, Professor Castells “quickly realised – long before most social scientists – that the internet would transform social life, work, politics, and the global economy”, Professor Klinenberg said.

Andreu Mas-Colell, former minister of economy and knowledge in Catalonia and former secretary general of the European Research Council, said of Professor Castells: “I think it’s likely, from his intimate exposure to the international academic landscape, from his writings and from what I know of him, that if he sets to it he can produce an excellent [university] law.”

Professor Castells – who has been a political influence on Mr Sánchez – has the “considerable political acumen” needed “to push it through”, he added.

Professor Mas-Colell continued: “Somebody dynamic, with an international vision and trusted at the universities – [which are] more inclined to PSOE-Podemos than to PP – cannot hurt.”


Print headline: Spanish coalition plans major HE reforms

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