Spanish degree scandals raise wider questions over quality

Accusations of academic malpractice have forced two resignations and reached the prime minister

September 25, 2018
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‘Liar liar’: Madrid politician Cristina Cifuentes stepped down after doubts were raised about her master’s degree

Even in a country used to academic fraud scandals, the past few months in Spain have been remarkable – it would almost be easier to list the Spanish politicians who don’t have questions hanging over their degrees.

Spanish newspapers have been full of fevered discussion about what level of coincidence on Turnitin constitutes plagiarism. Students have taken to the streets to demand an end to corruption on campus, chanting “we want the mafia out of this university”.

Observers say the scandals are a sign of poor quality assurance in Spanish higher education, a need to bring in money to support underfunded postgraduate programmes, and Spanish politicians’ unhealthy obsession with academic credentials.

The crisis started in April, when doubts were raised over the master’s degrees of two opposition Popular Party politicians: Cristina Cifuentes, leader of Madrid’s regional government at the time, and party leader Pablo Casado. Both degrees were awarded by the Public Law Institute at the King Juan Carlos University (URJC) in Madrid.

The pair were accused of not taking classes, exams or producing a thesis – but in both cases they blamed the university, saying they had simply done everything asked of them. Ms Cifuentes stepped down in late April following a further scandal over alleged shoplifting, while Mr Casado is still under investigation by the supreme court.

Politicians from the ruling socialist party have also been dragged in. Health minister Carmen Montón was forced to resign earlier this month after evidence of plagiarism emerged in a thesis submitted as part of a gender studies master’s, also at URJC. There were reports that the university’s IT system had been tampered with to change her grade to a pass, despite the fact that she didn’t submit work.

The scandal has now reached the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, who has been forced to release his economics doctorate – completed at another institution – amid accusations of plagiarism.

These events have revealed just how keen Spanish politicians are to get their hands on academic credentials, according to Manuel Villoria, professor of political science at URJC, who described their hunger for degrees as a way of spicing up otherwise dull CVs. “Most of our politicians are professionals…they decide to dedicate their lives to politics,” he said. “So some of them decide to create an idea that they’re not only politicians, but professors.”

For Inger Enkvist, professor emerita of Spanish studies at Lund University and an expert on Spanish university corruption, Spain’s degree addiction is down to an urge to “show off”. She said: “It’s not just clothes and a car, it’s an academic title.”

Most of these latest scandals have focused on URJC, and in particular its Institute for Public Law. On 19 September, El País reported on a police investigation over the alleged misuse of institute credit cards to fund lavish spending unconnected with teaching and unauthorised by more senior university officials.

Neither the university nor the head of the institute, Enrique Álvarez Conde, who controlled its accounts, responded to a request for comment.

Any malpractice is likely limited just to the institute, Professor Villoria said. But the problems of weak quality assurance go much further, he said, particularly at master’s level.

Spanish master’s courses tend to have to fund themselves from student fees, said Professor Enkvist, creating a “temptation” to relax standards. “If you go too far, you get to the situation of the university in Madrid [URJC],” she said.

Enric Fuster, who works at Barcelona-based university consultancy Siris Academic, said that academic requirements and procedures in Spain “can vary from department to department and, most notably, in some universities, autonomous institutes and disciplines”.

“This would be a symptom of a systemic problem with the higher education system or quality assurance,” he said, although he added that there are “good universities and excellent departments” too.

Raul Gomez, a senior lecturer in international politics at the University of Liverpool who has written on corruption in Spanish politics, pointed out that the UK system of external examiners, who check the quality of courses at other institutions, is lacking in Spain.

The recent scandals are far from unique – other politicians have been accused of similar academic misconduct for years, Professor Enkvist said. In 2016 Fernando Suárez, then URJC president, was forced to quit following plagiarism accusations.

“It would be taking the easy way out” to blame this latest crisis on just one person, Professor Enkvist warned.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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