Spanish curricula must move on from the 19th century

The conservatism of Spain’s universities and employers is damaging the nation’s future, says Samuel Martín-Barbero 

August 31, 2017

If you scroll down a list of the bachelor’s courses offered by a typical public university in Spain, you will notice that almost all of them sound somewhat archaic.

“Road, canal and port engineering” or “hill engineering” are good examples. Such programmes were appealing enough in the age of Brunel and Bazalgette, but they are unlikely to excite today’s digital savvy undergraduates, whose international peers are increasingly combining a range of arts, humanities and science subjects.

Future-oriented degrees incorporating different disciplines, such as management and biology, psychology and informatics or philosophy and physics, may be common in the US and the UK, but they have no place in the Spanish sector, where most learning still takes place in academic departments entirely disconnected from each other.

Hidebound, siloed thinking is endemic in the Spanish academy. Innovation is extremely rare. The duration of courses, the configuration of learning spaces and the styles of teaching remain largely uniform across the country – especially in the state-funded universities attended by 80 per cent of students.

Universities themselves are not entirely to blame for this state of affairs, however. If Spanish higher education is still reluctant to embrace interdisciplinarity, it is at least partly because Spanish employers continue to defend the preconceived idea that sciences and the arts are stand-alone areas of knowledge with nothing useful to say to each other. Students who attempt to straddle them would be deemed to have less professional credibility.

So while graduates in architecture or engineering might find gainful employment in journalism or fashion elsewhere in the world, relatively few graduates in Spain seek jobs outside the fields they majored in. YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki studied history and literature, but such a background would be virtually unthinkable for a Spanish executive. Only about 5 per cent of humanities graduates in Spain go on to work in the corporate sector; this compares with 37 per cent in the US, according to the Everis Foundation.

All that said, many successful Spanish transnational companies in the banking, telecoms, insurance and energy sectors are starting to demand a different type of multilingual, multidisciplinary graduate. Universities need to adapt to that and make it central to their strategic visions if Spain is to fulfil its potential in other corporate sectors, and to address the organisational, demographic and financial challenges faced by its society.

Change will be an uphill struggle. Breaking through the myriad regulations and legislation imposed on universities at both the national and the regional level will take time and persuasion. Spanish universities’ strict hierarchies and governance structures are also likely to impede disruptive progressive thinking, as are the risk-averse national professional associations, which still wield massive influence.

Conservatism is apparent even in the websites and mission statements of Spanish universities – if the logo of one institution was swapped for that of another, few people would notice the difference.

Forging stronger links with other world-leading universities abroad would represent a good start. Spain may be the most popular destination for Erasmus+ students, but its internationalisation efforts are only just starting. More extensive integration of English in the curriculum will help to drive it further. English has been the lingua franca for decades in numerous undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in northern Europe, but it continues to be marginal in the Spanish academic syllabus. Spain could look to the example of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean “51st state” of the US, where Spanish is spoken in the classroom but the textbooks are in English.

Each and every one of us in the Spanish academy must seek to provide the mix of knowledge and practice that the country needs to further its economic development. Specifically, teaching-oriented universities should stop trying to imitate their rivals and should instead focus on implementing more original courses and ensuring that they are taught by effective and highly motivated faculty.

These are testing and uncertain times for Western democracies. Innovation is crucial. Simply offering the same path trodden by students in the 19th century is no longer an option.

Samuel Martín-Barbero is the rector of Camilo José Cela University in Madrid.

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