Controversy over new universities law

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A new law on universities, introduced by the current centre-right government, has been adopted by the Spanish parliament and is likely to be passed by the Senate in November 2001. The proposed law has met with total rejection by the university community, trade unions, students' associations and opposition political parties, which see it as reducing university autonomy and worsening the employment situation of staff. A well-supported strike against the law was held on 7 November.

On 31 October 2001, the ruling People's Party (Partido Popular, PP), which has an absolute majority in parliament, passed a new 'Organic Law on Universities' (Ley Orgánica de Universidad). After it has been passed by the Senate, probably in November, the new law will come into force immediately.

The new universities law goes into far more detail than its predecessor, the University Reform Law (Ley de Reforma Universitaria). It introduces major changes affecting employees: only 50% of university staff now need be civil servants, as against 80% under the previous law; while the entrance tests to become a teacher with civil servant status, which were previously closely linked to the universities, will now be centralised through general tests of suitability. Another major change is in university governance: students and administrative staff will now have less representation on the governing bodies; and the rector will be elected by universal suffrage, as in a presidential system, and not by the university senate, as before. Universities will be assessed by an agency dependent on the government. There are no references to the 'European higher education area', launched by a declaration signed by 29 European education ministers at a meeting in Bologna, Italy in June 1999. (The signatories of the Bologna declaration agreed to reform their higher education systems through increased convergence, compatibility and coordination with the aim of creating a 'European higher education area' by 2010, in order to improve employability and mobility and increase the international competitiveness of European higher education.)

Opposition to the law

In view of the major changes that have taken place in Spanish education in recent years, this is an important law that critics believe should have been introduced through consultation and consensus. One of the main criticisms by universities is that the legislative procedure was unsuitable. The bill appeared in June 2001 and the law will probably come into force in November, without giving time for a public debate on the problems involved. Parliament processed the law quickly without calling on experts, as is usually the case for 'organic' laws, and it made all efforts to bring it into force at the earliest possible date.

The universities, the trade unions and the opposition parties claim that the law: is mainly centralising; reduces the autonomy of universities; presents a wrong concept of university governance; and fails to take into account the European dimension.

The Conference of Rectors of Spanish Universities (Conferencia de Rectores de las Universidades Españolas, CRUE) was particularly vociferous in its criticism. It claims that the government failed to seek consensus for such an important law. CRUE also states that the law: fails to take into account the European higher education area; will make universities more difficult to govern and more politicised; and will weaken their autonomy, which is the source of their strength. CRUE stresses that the quality of universities should be assessed by independent agencies (with national and international members) rather than by bureaucratic/political bodies. Finally, it states that better universities require greater investment, whereas the new law makes hardly any mention of funding.

The trade unions stress the perceived weakening of university autonomy that the law involves and the worsening of the employment situation of up to 50% of the teaching staff.

Students have criticised the perceived reduction in university autonomy and particularly the reduction in their own presence on governing bodies.

Lecturers generally consider that the law attempts to introduce uniformity and state that the Ministry failed to consult the university community on fundamental aspects of the law.

Strikes against new law

On 7 November, a strike was held at all Spanish universities, called by the university workers' trade unions affiliated to the Trade Union Confederation of Workers' Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO) and the General Workers' Confederation (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT), and followed by many independent trade unions, students' associations, rectors, lecturers and public figures. It was a highly successful strike, with the participation of 80%-90% of lecturers, researchers and administrative staff. Demonstrations were held in front of government buildings in practically all university cities. In some of these cities, the demonstrations led to confrontations between students and police.

Another strike was due to be held on 13-14 November, this time called by students' associations, which was expected to receive a high level of support. Numerous debates were to be held during a week of opposition to the law that promised to be eventful. Many members of the university community are indignant not only at the text of the law but at the fact that the opinions of the governing bodies of the universities were completely ignored.

The Ministry has responded to the protests by stating that it will accept amendments to the universities law in the Senate. If this occurs, it would - depending on the type of amendments that are accepted - delay the coming into force of the law.

Employment consequences

According to commentators, the fact that the new law will allow 50% of universities' faculty to be non-civil service staff need not be negative if the contractual conditions are suitable in terms of job stability, fair working conditions and pay etc. However, it is thought to be highly likely that recruitment will facilitate unstable employment, as has been the case in recent years, especially given that the proposed law fails to deal with funding. For years, governments have been reluctant to increase public expenditure on higher education. The fact that the new law introduces no substantial changes in university funding is an indicator that this policy will continue.

Commentary

The past 15 years, during which the previous universities law has been in force, has been a period of great change in society and in universities. The numbers of students, lecturers and degree courses have increased considerably, closer ties have been formed with companies and public authorities, and with universities in Europe and elsewhere. In the current situation, there are areas that do not work well, such as the mechanism for access to the civil service and student admission. An additional problem is that the level of funding of public universities is very low. Mechanisms must be found for society to assess universities, in exchange for their autonomy.

However, one must not ignore the great leap forward that has been made by Spanish universities in the last few years, thanks to their greater autonomy and greater funding in the early years of application of the current law. There has been an increase in the quality of teaching and research, and in the links with other European universities in research and teaching. All national and international assessments state this clearly. Present-day Spanish universities bear little resemblance to those of the past. The current law should be revised in order to improve the framework, but not through an attitude of mistrust in the institution of universities - as has arguably applied in the drawing up of the new law.

The necessary changes cannot be brought about through a law that is drawn up and rushed through parliament without a public debate. Not everything can be legislated for, and it is desirable that universities should follow different paths. Society must trust them to work, organise and manage themselves autonomously, give them suitable funding for this to be possible, and make them accountable through periodical impartial assessments. It is incomprehensible that the government has tried to introduce uniformity at a time when universities are being called on to adapt to an increasingly competitive environment. What this would create is not universities, but offices for issuing degrees.

It seems that the government has chosen the latter approach. It therefore needs a centralised university system with little autonomy, with standards and laws that make all its activities fit in so that they can be easily controlled by the bureaucracy. This does not seem to be the way to achieve a creative, cutting-edge university with a critical spirit. (Fausto Miguélez, QUIT-UAB)

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