A scheme to assess the quality of university teaching and research has been approved by the Spanish government. Although participation is officially voluntary the findings will influence the amount of funding universities receive so in practice all will have to join in.
Jeronimo Saavedra, the Spanish education minister, said: "Funding will be used to reward the most imaginative and creative universities as opposed to those which rely on apathy and routine."
The Universities' Quality Evaluation Plan, will run for five years starting in 1996. It aims to provide the first objective quality ranking for all 45 state universities, building on an earlier experiment involving 17 institutions.
The scheme will focus on three key areas. For teaching it will look at how individual lecturers perform and how students rate the teaching on specific courses as well as examining selection and promotion procedures. These results may be used to introduce performance-related pay at a later date.
For research, criteria will include a department's output of publications and its participation in international research projects.
Efficiency in managing resources, to be judged by the standards of facilities such as libraries and sporting installations, is the third and final area for attention.
A university can choose to be assessed either singly or together with others, either on the basis of specific courses or subject areas or as a whole.
When the plan was unveiled by the Universities Council in September, it immediately ran into opposition from the Catalan regional government. This body, one of 17 across Spain, enjoys wide-ranging powers over the seven Catalan state universities. If a centrally funded and administered scheme were to be introduced, it could mean less power for the regions. The Catalan response has been to threaten to set up its own quality assessment programme.
The move to put institutions under the quality spotlight is undoubtedly part of a trend towards greater accountability and responsiveness in the still fairly rigid Spanish university system. The findings will eventually be published and are likely to generate a great deal of public debate. The regional governments can be expected to take quality assessments into account when dividing funds between universities. But while competition may be creeping into financial matters, other domains remain untouched.
Students are allowed to apply only to universities in their own region, with only 5 per cent of places reserved for those from outside the regional catchment area. So while aspiring students may become better informed about the merits of different universities, their choice will remain limited.