Rodrigo González knows he chose the wrong course. A brilliant student, he went off to Seville University with an outstanding record to study telecommunications but came a cropper in a big way. Now he is back home broke in Extremadura, faced with having to return the 3,300 euros in grant money he spent during his first failed year at college. "There's not much to do here," he says. "It's an agricultural area, so I'm not going to turn down work that comes to me: cashier, waiter..."
Paula (an assumed name) overcame her limitations to shed her label as a student with special needs and started studying for her high-school diploma at a center in the south of Madrid. She received a government grant of 704 euros, but the year turned out to be harder than she expected and she wasn't able to pass half of her subjects. Now she has to give the money back.
The same is happening to thousands of other students across the country. Not only has the Education Ministry toughened the criteria required to obtain a student grant, but it has also toughened the measures relating to grant recipients who fail to fulfill what is expected of them.
Responsibility for education lies with the regions, some of which manage their own grant systems
Now students who fail to pass half of their subjects and do not attend 80 percent of their classes have to pay back the money they receive for transport, material and maintenance - enrolment fees never have to be returned. Up until August 2012, students only had to return grant money if they failed to attend less than half of their classes or dropped out.
The ministry estimates that around 6,500 university students and 3,400 students in secondary education owe money to the state for the 2011-12 academic year. But that number is likely to shoot up to 20,000 for 2012-13 as a result of the new measures, according to a conservative estimate made by EL PAÍS using data from 13 universities. It is a slow, but relentless process. Education centers take more than a year to resolve each student's record. Those who fail to pay back the money could end up on a list of bad debtors and carry their debt around with them for years.
Because responsibility for education lies with the regions, some of which manage their own grant systems, how much each student has to repay varies around the country. Education Ministry sources say they are searching for formulas to allow people to return the money they owe by installment after receiving numerous requests from those affected. Many students, secondary education centers and parents associations (Fapas) say they were unaware of the changes in the requirements relating to the return of grants. The education secretary's decision was published in August 2012, although the ministry points out that the decree has been widely discussed in places where family associations were present. The Asturias Fapa sent letters out in May reminding its members that students who did not pass would be penalized.
"Everything came to us as rumors," says former telecommunications student González from his house in Burguillos del Cerro in Badajoz province, Extremadura. "I had to go directly to an office to confirm it."
González left home in September 2012 to study telecommunications engineering in Seville, but only ended up passing one subject. "I understand my share of the blame and that they won't give me a grant for next year. But I requested the grant to go to university because I don't have any money and I still don't," González says. His father was laid off from a granite company and his mother doesn't work.
González would have started another course if he hadn't had to return the 3,300 euros he owes. Now he has to save and try again next academic year. "My family is supporting me; they also want me to be a university student."
As many rules as exceptions
Not only are there differences in the enrolment fees that students pay from region to region, but the amount of grant money they could have to return also varies - and by a large amount.
The big exception, for example, is the Basque Country, where students never have to return any grant money owing to a poor academic performance. "Nobody has ever asked us to apply it. I didn't even know the possibility existed," admits Javier Alonso, universities chief in the Basque regional education department. The region runs its own grant system, managing a budget of 26 million euros for universities.
"The conditions for a grant are imposed before the fact," Alonso explains. "Over the course of a year a thousand things could happen that could change your life. A student might loaf around, but they also might fall ill. It's unfair to claim back all the money after the fact, unless you study it on a case-by-case basis."
That is exactly what they do in Navarre, which complements Education Ministry grants with its own money. Before demanding back any funds, a monitoring committee comprising representatives from universities, the government and secondary education examine each record. Navarre has, however, adopted the new measures.
The Canary Islands operates a similar committee system, while the Madrid region requests the information from each center and forwards it to the Education Ministry and the regional economy and finance department, a regional spokesman explains, "so that they can initiate the repayment proceedings."
Institutions in Madrid, Valencia, the Canaries and Murcia have already started to collect data for this academic year, but others, such as Andalusia and Catalonia, have not even started the process. In the latter, the universities say it is the responsibility of the university grant management agency, which comes under the wing of the regional government, to carry out the work. The agency, meanwhile, says it is up to the region's universities.