Education chief does U-turn on grades for university grants

Stricter standards for financial aid will mean fewer students, say regional chiefs

A day after questioning whether a high school graduate with an average grade of under 6.5 (out of 10) should go to university at all, Education Minister José Ignacio Wert announced on Tuesday that he will revise the new minimum grade average needed to apply for first-year university study grants.

However, Wert did not say what this revised standard would be. The current minimum average to apply is 5.5.

Wert made the announcement after meeting with higher-education chiefs from all the Spanish regions; most had asked him to revise his idea for a 6.5 cut-off grade, according to three people who attended the meeting. Nobody supported Wert's draft document as it stands now.

Yet less than a week ago, at his last meeting with university rectors, Wert claimed that this 6.5 grade would not be changed. The rectors, for their part, announced that establishing this cut-off mark would be unconstitutional because it went against equal-opportunity provisions.

At least three regional governments - Castilla y León, Andalusia and Asturias - asked Wert to bring the required grade down to five (a bare-bones pass without grade), but the Education Ministry will not consider it. "The criteria that this decree is based on are absolutely incompatible with the notion of reducing academic requirements even further," Wert said.

We lament the Education Ministry's absence of dialogue with universities regarding the new grants"

According to Wert's plans, once in university students will have to pass all their subjects (or obtain an average of 6.5) in order to keep their grants. This requirement goes down to 85 percent of subjects passed, or an average of six out of 10, for especially difficult study programs such as engineering and architecture. Wert has noted that other fields of study could be included in this group. The ministry did not say how many grant applicants would be affected by the stricter grade requirement.

Antonio Ávila, the Andalusia economy and science chief, estimates that 35 to 45 percent of Andalusian university students, or around 90,000 individuals, would not meet the grade requirements. With his new study grant model based on tougher academic requirements and budget availability, Wert has managed in just a few days what his predecessors failed to achieve despite years of efforts: to build consensus in the education community. But the consensus consists of unanimous rejection of his scholarship system.

The State School Council on Tuesday voted on 20 amendments against the project. On Wednesday, Wert came in for criticism from regional education chiefs, including several from his own Popular Party (PP), such as those in Extremadura and Castilla y León.

Then on Thursday, Wert had to deal with university rectors, who asked for a withdrawal of the grant decree. "We lament the Education Ministry's absence of dialogue with universities regarding the new approach to grants, despite our formal petitions," said the rectors in a press release.

"The relationship must be considered in a different light," said Francisco González Lodeiro, the rector at the University of Granada. "Universities are also part of the state."

His colleague at the University of Seville, Antonio Ramírez de Arellano, agrees on the need to find common ground and build consensus, although he acknowledges that Wert's job is "strongly conditioned by decisions coming from the Economy Ministry and the Treasury."

Controversy is nothing new to Wert. Earlier in the year, he stated his desire to "hispanicize Catalan students" through legal changes and introducing more coursework in Spanish in the northeastern region, where Catalan is now the main language at schools. He also incensed secular sectors of society by announcing more support for religion classes and state grants for schools that segregate students by gender.

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