Spain to ‘reinforce’ standards as private universities multiply

Economist questions whether private institutions’ focus on profitable social science subjects matches labour market demands

May 21, 2024
Chess tournament in Madrid to illustrate Spain to ‘reinforce’ standards as private universities multiply
Source: Miguel Pereira/Getty Images

Spain has been told to adopt a “strategic” approach to the creation of new universities as the government takes steps to address the “rapid” growth of institutions, particularly in the private sector.

A working group has been formed to examine the issue which, according to universities minister Diana Morant, will “reinforce the academic, economic, equipment and teaching level requirements to create a new university institution in our country”.

Speaking at the working group’s first meeting, its chair, universities secretary Juan Cruz Cigudosa, referenced “the rapid and high growth in the number of universities in our country”.

Of Spain’s 91 active universities, 50 are public while 41 are private, with three further private universities currently awaiting approval. Private institutions proliferated following the decentralisation of higher education in 1992, said Eva María de la Torre, associate professor in economics at the Autonomous University of Madrid, with a particular acceleration over the past few years.

“The numbers of [public and private] institutions are getting closer, but the number of students not so much,” Dr De La Torre told Times Higher Education. “Twenty years ago, 10 per cent of students were enrolled in private universities; now it’s around 20 per cent. It’s a huge increase, but they’re still only 20 per cent of the system.”

While some new universities have raised quality concerns, she continued, “from my point of view we have pretty good quality assessment agencies, and the same criteria apply to all public and private universities”. The government’s primary focus, she suggested, should be on the distribution of courses.

Most new private universities are for-profit institutions, Dr De La Torre said; as a result, they focus primarily on teaching “profitable subjects” with high demand. “They prioritise master's degrees, and teach degrees with low production costs, which are mainly in the social sciences: MBAs, management degrees, economic degrees, law degrees,” she said. “They might have some research activity because they look for some prestige, but it’s not profitable, so it’s not their main focus.”

“In teaching, we already have an oversupply,” Dr De La Torre said. “What type of workers do we want to have? Do we want everybody to have an MBA? The match between what the universities do and what the labour market needs is a very strategic point in the economic development of the country. We need the central government to take a stand.”

The rapid expansion of private universities could also raise access issues, the economist noted. “Prices are higher in the private sector,” she said. While at present “the most prestigious research-intensive universities usually belong to the public sector”, the unchecked growth of private institutions could risk excluding students from poorer backgrounds.

Streamlining administrative processes at public universities – the focus of a second government-backed working group – could help them compete with “more flexible” private institutions, Dr De La Torre said – although funding limitations restrict their ability to react to demand. “For public universities, it’s difficult to be flexible enough to respond to demand and take advantage of new market niches,” she said. “We have been underfunded for years, and this makes us less able to adapt, because we don’t have the resources to explore.”

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