Spain’s minister for education, José Ignacio Wert, needs to reexamine the new system of student grants, which is due to be implemented during the upcoming academic year, given the widespread criticism it has caused. On Wednesday, it was the regional education chiefs — including those from Popular Party-governed areas — who made their opposition known, while on Thursday, deans from both public and private universities joined the opposition to the plans. During a meeting with the minister, the deans justified their rejection of the system based on the fact that it could potentially lead to 50 percent of students in some universities losing their grants.
The reforms involve a radical change to the current grant system. From this year onward, the awarding of a grant will not be based on social-economic factors. Access will require better student grades, and the amount of the grant awarded will be based on the budget available at the time of request. The new system will divide the grant into two parts. One will be fixed, but a lower amount than is currently offered (a maximum of 1,500 euros). Meanwhile, the other will be variable, and based on a formula that examines three criteria: family income, the grades of the student, and the total budget available for grants.
Both the education chiefs and the deans believe that the implementation of this plan will worsen the situation that has been seen this year after modifications were introduced last July, which toughened the academic qualifications needed to obtain a grant. In all of the regions, the number of grants awarded has fallen sharply — in the case of Andalusia the rejection rate has risen to 40.6 percent of all requests. By extrapolating the data from this year, the Catalan regional education department estimates that one in every two students could lose their grant.
The new system paves the way for the reduction of the funds destined for grants immediately after the cost of university courses has been raised — when that decision was taken, the government claimed that the effect would be negligible given that a generous system of grants would be introduced. And all of this comes, of course, at a time when the crisis has caused the number of families in need of financial assistance to rise.
Wert has justified the reforms given the need to stimulate a culture of sacrifice and to encourage greater academic excellence. The proposal is justifiable, and should be a priority for any education system. But it is far from clear as to whether this is the way to achieve it. There are other formulas — such as the introduction of rules relating to the completion of courses — that would allow for a greater level of academic excellence without affecting the fairness of the system, nor generating grievances.
Measures to improve grades should be applicable to all students. It is unfair to demand that a student from a poorer background achieve a grade of 6.5 out of 10 before being able to receive a grant, while for the rest a grade of five out of 10 is enough for them to pass a course that is mostly subsidized with public money, given that the registration fee paid by the student just covers a small part of the cost. In practice, the new system means greater demands precisely for those who, given their economic difficulties, are facing a tougher time.