higher education

"Sponsor-a-student" call divides academia

Malaga University president says private funding must be brought in to pay tuition fees Student unions and academics see proposal as the thin end of the wedge

Students at the Politécnica de Valencia university. Many face increasing difficulties paying higher tuition fees.
Students at the Politécnica de Valencia university. Many face increasing difficulties paying higher tuition fees.CARLES FRANCESC

The idea launched last week by Adelaida de la Calle, the president of Málaga University, to set up a pool of donors to fund ("sponsor" was the term she used) students unable to meet the cost of their higher education has divided the academic community. Some of De la Calle's colleagues support her proposals as a practical, immediate solution to a growing problem, while student unions argue that it is the state's job to fund education, a view backed by other university presidents, who feel that the idea blurs the line between solidarity and the right to an education.

De la Calle, who is also president of the Conference of Spanish University Presidents (CRUE), has walked into a political minefield. Sponsorship and donations have long been part of Spanish academic life, although to a lesser degree, say, than in the United Kingdom, but her proposal has put many of her colleagues onto the back foot. Typically, private funding in Spanish universities is directed at research or a departmental chair, but De la Calle suggests looking at the funneling of private money directly into financing students who cannot afford to pay their tuition fees.

On Thursday De la Calle said that Málaga University will open a bank account for contributors to make their donations. She did not discuss any of the legal aspects of the initiative. Other universities, such as Madrid's Complutense, are also looking into using private money to create an emergency fund for hard-up students. Huelva University already has an initiative underway: its president, Francisco Ruiz, has set up a program called Matrícula that allows companies, individuals, or organizations to contribute toward the costs of students facing economic difficulties.

We aren't used to private initiatives contributing to university financing"

Aware of the impact on the educational community, De la Calle highlighted the provisional nature of her proposals, saying: "This should be seen as an emergency or transitory measure, because I am clear in my mind that it is the state that should be providing the majority of funding for education." She told reporters that the question of greater use of private funding had not yet been discussed within CRUE, but suggested that it would be on the organization's agenda soon.

The Spanish Federation of Student Associations (FAEST) accepts that the idea "allows for the possibility for civic-minded people to support students with economic problems," but points out in a press release that the measure would have to be temporary "because it is essentially charity, when in reality it is the state that should provide grants and funding to students that need it."

Grants and fees: a growing disparity

- Tuition fees. Until two years ago, the cost of going to university in Spain was among the lowest in Europe. This was a reflection of the country's relatively low cost of living and due to a tradition of low matriculation costs in public universities compared to other EU member states. Between 2010 and 2011, the average cost was 1,100 euros. Today, the cost can be anywhere between 591 euros (in Galicia), and 1,620 in the Madrid region.

- Little assistance. The relatively low cost of fees was meant to compensate for the overall lack of grants to fund students over the course of their degree programs, as several reports by public and private bodies have pointed out over the years. Average spending across the 34 member countries of the OECD to assist people in their university studies is around 0.3 percent of GDP; in Spain the figure is 0.1 percent. The sharp increase in tuition fees of recent years has not been matched by any increase in grants.

Another students' union, CREUP, cautiously welcomed the move, however. In a press statement, it referred to the government's cuts to education spending and the ever-tougher requirements for funding, adding that any move to "help make sure that students are not denied an education" was positive. At the same time, it highlighted the government's role in underpinning a system where education for all is guaranteed: "We need a grants policy that reflects social needs; we cannot accept a situation where somebody's going to university depends on whether an individual or organization has donated enough money."

Ana García, secretary general of the Students' Union group, has taken a tougher line with De la Calle's idea, dubbing it "outrageous" and accusing her of backing what she called the government's plans to "subject the right to an education to charity." García likens the proposal to a return to the days of the Franco dictatorship, and pointing out that the billions of euros spent supporting Spain's banking system would have been better spent on public services such as health and education.

The president of Seville University has interpreted De la Calle's proposals as a "wake-up call" regarding the mounting difficulties facing universities and students as a result of government spending cuts. "But I continue to believe that grants and subsidies should be paid for with public money," said Antonio Ramírez de Arellano.

Manuel Palomar, the president of Alicante University, has also highlighted the dangers of mixing what he called solidarity and the right to an education. Ángel Gabilondo, an academic and a former education minister in the Socialist Party administration of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, fears that sponsoring students could potentially increase inequality, with the right to education dependent "on the goodwill of people who, for the right reasons, want to help."

More than 30,000 students face expulsion as they cannot pay their fees

But other senior figures from academia have broadly welcomed the idea, such as Vicente C. Guzmán, the president of Pablo de Olavide University, in Seville. "Here in Spain we are not accustomed to private initiatives contributing to university financing," he says, adding that De la Calle's proposals should be seen in context: "There are students who face expulsion because they cannot pay for their tuition fees and have no grant."

According to a survey carried out by EL PAÍS, more than 30,000 students throughout Spain face expulsion from university because they cannot pay their tuition fees. Guzmán said that if a system of private donations was to be used for funding, it would require what he called absolute transparency: "They would need to be regulated and controlled; the person making the contribution would have to know what use the money was being put to." He says that individuals and organizations wanting to make a contribution to help students with financial problems have contacted his university.

Julio Carabaña, a sociology professor at Madrid's Complutense University, welcomes the idea of greater private funding: "Anything that helps generate money is a good idea," he says. At the same time, he also warns that anybody making a private donation is highlighting the government's deficiencies: "This is delegitimizing the government."

Fewer teachers, more learners


Over the last five years, growing numbers of school leavers have opted to continue their studies, aware that they stand little chance of finding a job: the university student population has increased by seven percent (93,000 people). The problem is that the number of academic staff to teach them has not risen; in fact it has fallen.

At the same time, students face higher tuition fees: in some cases up to 67 percent more. Since 2008, university teaching staff numbers have fallen by 8.8 percent; that's 13,200 jobs out of a total of 149,000 full- and part-time posts. University presidents have seen their budgets cut by 1.2 billion euros over the same period, prompting protests by students and teachers who argue that the cuts are further reducing Spain's educational standards by increasing class sizes and cutting research projects, the outcome of which will be felt in the coming decades when there will be a shortfall of academic staff to replace those who retire.

Madrid Polytechnic's department of biotechnology illustrates the situation. It has lost seven teaching staff from its team of 54 over the last three years, along with half of its 10 laboratory technicians. Overall, the institution has lost 301 of its staff. Only one in 10 of retirees are replaced. Meanwhile, teaching staff face ever-bigger class numbers, along with a greater number of subjects.

"We had less teaching to do before. A researcher would give 84 hours of classes, and the rest of the time was involved in research. Now we teach twice that amount, or more: we now have 120 students in biotechnology; before it was 50," says Rosa Sánchez Monge, the head of the department. "We have had to drop research into improving wheat quality, and everything else has been cut back."

Sánchez Monge says that research funding has been cut by around two-thirds over the last five years. At the same time, she explains that the new requirements imposed by the European Union's Bologna Process - which aims to harmonize education throughout the bloc - means that classes are more interactive, with continuous evaluation, and smaller groups: "This requires a lot more preparation."

Francisco Michavilla, director of the UNESCO Chair for Management and University Policy, points out that at most major universities around the world, teaching staff are backed one-to-one by library staff, lab technicians and so on. "In Spain however, there has always been a significant asymmetry. The teacher-to-student ratio was good: nine per 100 students, three higher than the EU average in 2011; but there is only one support person for each two teachers. The new round of sackings has hit support staff particularly hard. Spanish politicians have a 19th-century concept of university teachers as gentlemen standing behind a lectern," he says.

Julio Serrano of the CCOO labor union says that in 1983, the newly elected Socialist Party government of Felipe González introduced sweeping education reform. "Within four or five years, thousands of teachers joined the universities. These teachers are now about to retire and there is nobody to replace them," he says. "If a university with 2,000 teachers retires 150 of them each year and only replaces them with 15, within four years they will have lost a quarter of their staff. University graduates, on whom we have spent so much time and money, will go elsewhere; things are going to get very difficult in a few years; they won't want to come back, especially when they see the conditions they face here," he says.

At Almería University, things have reached the point whereby psychology lecturer Jorge López Puga has offered to teach for free. He had been teaching there since 2007, but in 2012 his 646-euro monthly salary was finally stopped.

"University teaching is my life. I have dedicated many years to this," he told EL PAÍS last year. "I know what I am proposing is outrageous, but when you teach you don't just do it for the money; you are putting something back into society," he said. Eventually, he ended up joining the staff at the private Catholic University of Murcia.

Associate lecturers at universities have often been able to hold on to their jobs, in large part because their working conditions are already precarious. An associate lecturer in the architecture department at Madrid's Polytechnic University survives because he has his own small studio: "I started teaching here six years ago, earning 600 euros for 10 hours teaching; I am now being paid 500 euros, and am no longer paid during the summer vacation. The school is taking on more and more students, which means that they have had to hold on to the teaching staff. We are necessary because we provide a perspective to students of what life is like out in the real world."

Teachers returning to university this fall face further cutbacks: the Polytechnic of Catalonia's staff has been cut by 670 over the last four years, and the university is 110 million euros in debt; it has just announced that it will be laying off 250 associate lecturers. Seville will be getting rid of 10 teachers on short-term contracts; Olavide 31, Vigo 21, and the medicine, nursing and physiotherapy schools at Salamanca's venerable university are in danger of closing due to the shortfall in staff replacements.

In 2008, when the depression kicked in, university presidents warned that their institutions were already oversubscribed by 13 percent. This year, a commission of experts tasked by the Education Ministry to look into university reform, has recommended reducing the number of students entering higher education. One of the outcomes will likely be further staff cuts at Spain's universities.

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