Spanish universities law extends ‘long tradition of mistrust’

Second draft promises to increase spending and tackle casualisation, but government remains reluctant to loosen reins on sector frustrated by red tape

May 22, 2022
Pedestrian bicycle traffic light in Barcelona both red and green lights are on to illustrate Spanish universities law extends ‘long tradition’ of mistrust
Source: Alamy

Spain’s redrafted universities law promises to increase spending and to halve the proportion of academic staff on temporary contracts, but experts said it would do little to strip back the red tape that hampers the sector.

The new draft, proposed by the centre-left coalition of Pedro Sánchez, would commit the government to spending 1 per cent of gross domestic product on public universities, a reassurance for a sector cut hard after the 2008 financial crash.

It would also lower the institutional limit on the proportion of teaching and research staff who are employed on temporary contracts from 40 per cent to 20 per cent.

However, sector leaders highlighted that it would do little to ease the strict regulations that surround international collaborative activities such as dual or joint degrees.

“For a Spanish university to create a dual degree with another university takes tons of bureaucracy,” said Pablo Pareja, deputy vice-rector for teaching at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University (UPF).

“It is much more difficult for students to get on to the dual degrees; it is much more difficult to issue the degrees; it is much more complicated to get it validated by the government,” he said. The updated law, he continued, did nothing to change this: “It’s not going to be harder, but it’s not going to be easier than it was.”

Bureaucratic challenges are felt particularly keenly by Spanish universities involved in European Union-sponsored university alliances, with which the bloc is hoping to tackle long-standing barriers to cross-border education. UPF is part of the 10-strong Eutopia alliance.

“We find a gap between what we would like to do and what the European Universities project seeks to do and what the existing legislation actually allows us to do,” said Professor Pareja.

More generally, he said, the new text of the law offers “some flexibility” but is still “very programmatic and not so much goal-oriented or aim-oriented”. For example, it includes a requirement to have dedicated teams for equality and diversity, rather than leaving institutions leeway to address the issue.

“It offers more room for manoeuvre than the previous version, but it still follows a very long tradition of mistrust,” he said.

Others were more upbeat. Javier Lafuente, rector of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, said the updated law was “more open”.

“There are some general rules that are for all the public universities, but every university according to their own characteristic can adapt or make their own regulation,” he said.

The first draft of the law, developed after extensive consultation by the previous universities minister, Manuel Castells, was roundly rejected by the sector.

“He tried to make a law which was very complicated because a lot of people [were] trying to make pressure and to change [it],” said Professor Lafuente, adding that it “put a lot of restriction and rules on everything”.

A finalised version of the law is set to be adopted early next year.

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