Spain faces contracts decision

January 24, 1997

Spanish university leaders are looking for solutions to one of their biggest sources of tension - the status of lecturers on short-term contracts.

Established teaching staff are officially civil servants who get a job for life by passing competitive exams. In addition, non-renewable five-year assistantships exist to give teaching and research experience to would-be academics in the final years of their doctorates.

In theory, at least. In practice, as the student population has mushroomed from 692,152 in 1982 to 1,553,210 in 1996, assistants or associate lecturers on short-term contracts have been used to plug the gaps in teaching and research capacity. Today they number approximately 20,000, most with no job security and little prospect of advancing their careers.

The Conference of University Rectors (CRUL) has come up with two possible solutions: either offering assistants long-term contracts without civil servant status or creating a new category of tenured staff, on lower pay, who are expected to teach rather than do research.

XAVIER ARANDA believes assistants should be given long-term contracts rather than be converted into "second-class civil servants". For him, the idea of giving people tenure on lower pay shows that Spanish universities' employment policies are driven primarily by money. After five years as a postgraduate and another four as an assistant in the department of plant physiology at the University of Barcelona, he is likely to be looking for another job in September.

He sees his present employment situation as contradictory. "Legally we are not lecturers but in practice we are," he says. He is frustrated by planning research objectives for the next two years in the knowledge that he will probably not be there to do the work. Dr Aranda thinks his university is being incongruous by taking initiatives to improve teaching standards while simultaneously looking to replace experienced teaching staff with recent graduates.

"The university and the state have invested a lot of money in training me to do a job which I am fairly certain I won't be doing," he says. He believes students tend to lose faith when they see that their teacher is someone who was a fellow student only a year or so before. Dr Aranda notes that in recent demonstrations Catalan students were calling for better quality teaching.

Spanish universities have provided relatively few new tenured posts since the expansion in the early 1980s when most of today's lecturers got tenure. Dr Aranda believes this age profile - most permanent lecturers are aged between 45 and 50 - is storing up trouble for the future. As university lecturers can officially retire at 70, from 2016 onwards he predicts that a glut of retirements and new appointments will cause chaos in the university system. Similarly, in four years' time when this year's batch of teacher postgraduates reach the end of their term, conflicts similar to the current one will occur.

"Why not plan this renewal over time so that people can be brought in gradually?" he asked.

LLUIS RIVERO, after four years as an assistant in the geochemistry, petrology and geological prospecting department at the University of Barcelona, thinks he may well be out of a job by September.

He teaches for 240 hours a year and is involved in two research projects, but is one of a group of about 300 assistants at Barcelona whose contracts are due to expire. He and a colleague, also on a temporary contract, are responsible for two-thirds of postgraduate courses between them.

Dr Rivero says that while most Spanish universities have resorted to short-term contracts as a cheaper alternative to tenure, the policies followed by the University of Barcelona have made his problem worse. Postgraduate students in Spain traditionally receive grants, currently around Pounds 490 a month, and in return carry out limited teaching and research on top of their studies.

Dr Rivero believes his university has decided to use postgraduates to fill the gaps formerly occupied by assistants. He points to the increase in such positions, up from last year's 300 to 425 this year and due to reach 650 within two years. Meanwhile, at the end of their five years, full-time assistants are being given the choice of part-time contracts and reduced pay, or leaving.

"They want people they can treat as they please, that is to say postgraduates on grants," he says.

Of the rectors' options, Dr Rivero favours long-term contracts. For him, creating a new class of lecturer with tenure but inferior conditions would cause tension in the long run. He believes in any case that civil servant status and life-long tenure may not be the most appropriate way of employing university lecturers.

As for the assistants at Barcelona, "we have never said we should all automatically be given jobs, rather that we be shown a career path which will allow us to become professional teachers".

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