Concern is spreading throughout the education sector over the consequences that the government’s cutbacks will have for the quality of teaching in the future. Despite the strategy of presenting his measures in a piecemeal fashion, if Education Minister José Ignacio Wert’s policies are looked at as a whole, they not only constitute a backward step in quality, but also in terms of equal opportunities. With a budget reduction for 2012 of 21.9 percent, the entire education system, from elementary school right through to the universities, is suffering harsh deprivations. To this must be added the saving of three billion euros Wert has imposed on regional authorities, on top of the 3.5 billion announced earlier.
The minister has justified the cutbacks as an opportunity to boost efficiency so as to leave the quality of teaching untouched, but such an aspiration to improve the management of resources has little credibility if it is not accompanied by an economic plan or development report. At no time has Wert explained just how quality or efficiency can be boosted by a package of measures that reduces staffing levels and increases teachers' contact hours and class sizes, while at the same time closing classrooms and cutting out backup activities and limiting the array of options for high-school students. And all of this in a public system which has 320,000 more students to cater for than two years ago.
In short, it is impossible to see how these measures will not exacerbate the two main weaknesses of Spain’s education system: a high dropout rate and poor results in standardized tests. Now that the dropout rate in high-school education after the obligatory age has been reached was starting to fall — by five percentage points in the past two years — these cutbacks mean this opportunity to boost qualification levels will be wasted. Despite this recent improvement, the dropout rate in Spain stands at 26 percent, compared to a European average of 14.4 percent.
The postponement of reform to the FP professional training system to the school year 2014-15 constitutes another blow to what is seen as the Achilles’ heel of the education sector. Good vocational training is the best tool with which to incorporate people into the labor market, as can be seen in countries such as Germany. Spain is 10 points below the standard recommended by the European Union in this area. There is no way to massage the figures; these are cutbacks, pure and simple. There can be no doubt that a drop in the quality of public education damages equal opportunities in society.
In the universities, too, fairness will be affected. The increase in course fees has been presented as a necessary measure to boost resources at a time when the economic situation has pushed universities to the brink of collapse. Some deans had argued for a hike in fees, but on the condition of there being a boost to the system of grants. Minister Wert’s response has been to raise fees by 66 percent without increasing the funds set aside for grants, and making qualification requirements even harder. The result is that university fees will now represent a bigger obstacle for the children of low-income families.