Spanish bill attacked by coalition

October 12, 2001

The Spanish government's new law to regulate universities is coming under attack from all sides - rectors, unions, students, the opposition and regional government.

The bill, known as the Universities' Law, aims to update the legal framework, untouched since 1985. It will change university management structures, giving more power to governors appointed by regional government and industry representatives. It will abolish the national entrance exam for students, allow universities to select students and will establish a national training exam for lecturers.

Staff and student trade unions have decided to coordinate their protests and the chances of a broad coalition against the bill are growing.

During the past week criticism of the bill has become deafening. Rectors of several major universities have used their new academic year speech to voice their criticisms. The Spanish rectors' conference has condemned the law.

The eight state universities of Catalonia have published a report alleging the law is unconstitutional on five points. The three universities of the Basque country have also declared their opposition to the bill. The Basque regional government has threatened to come up with its own universities' act if this one goes ahead.

In parliament, the opposition has tabled nine calls for the bill's total withdrawal. The two main academic unions plan to team up with student unions to organise a general strike and national day of protest in mid-November.

Joan Tugores, rector of Barcelona University, believed everyone had united against the law because it was seriously flawed. "It doesn't address the concerns of a 21st-century university and the solutions it does propose will only make existing problems worse," he said.

Opposers of the bill claimed it represented an attack on university autonomy and invaded the powers of Spain's 17 regional governments. They said that it went against trends in the rest of Europe.

Proposals in the bill include a national exam for would-be academics and changes to the way rectors and governing councils are elected. This second proposal would force all elected management to resign within months of the law coming into force.

"This measure shows the minister of education has no confidence in anything she doesn't directly control," said Juan Manuel Gonzalez, head of information at Comisiones Obreras trade union.

Manuel Montero, rector of the University of the Basque Country, thinks the bill could cause chaos.

"It would destabilise our university and mean turning our backs on the European higher education space," he said.

He is concerned that the new law fails to promote regional languages; lecturers at Basque universities would not be required to show proficiency in the Basque language for instance.

Education minister Pilar del Castillo said that the bill reinforced the powers of regional government and had proposed changes to the clause forcing rectors to resign.

The bill is being debated in Parliament and could become law by December or next January.

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