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."

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."

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS