Society 10/10/2021

Catalan universities rebel against Minister Castells' plans

Rectors warn that abolishing three-year degrees clashes with Europe and fear that the new law will curtail autonomy

4 min
A university student studies in the library of the faculty, in an archive image

BarcelonaCatalan universities are the most highly rated institutions according to the Centro de Estudios de Opinión (CEO) and top the rankings of the best centres in Spain. At the Spanish level, however, their social prestige is unknown because the Centre for Sociological Research does not take them into account. This is a small example that shows that the Catalan university system - and also the research system - has always been one step ahead. This is why Catalan universities have been particularly opposed to the plans of the Ministry of Universities, led by Manuel Castells: from the elimination of three-year degrees, which is already official, to the drafts of the future law on Universities.

When the controversial José Ignacio Wert approved the three-year degrees, Catalan universities had long been asking the state to accredit 180-credit degrees (and not just 240), as most European countries were already doing. Since then, only 24 have been created, 17 of them in Catalonia, which is why the sector was quite surprised by Castells' decision to abolish the 0.006% of degrees that exist in Spain. "Eliminating them means making the system more rigid: nobody was obliged to do three-year degrees. They simply provided interesting flexibility and could coexist well with four-year degrees. We don't see any compelling reason to do away with them", says the UOC's Vice President for Teaching and Learning, Carles Sigalés.

Catalan universities consider that abolishing the 180-credit degrees is a step backwards that distances the Catalan university system from Europe. "It's like the issue of trains: if we have a different track gauge, it is much more difficult to converge with the rest of the continent", summarises graphically the rector of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Oriol Amat, who regrets that when Spain regulates "it doesn't look enough at how the best countries do it". "If this analysis had been done, they would not have been banned", he says.

The decision affects above all, say the rectors, the mobility of students, because they will stop coming if they can do so in their own country in three years and not in four, and Catalans will also go abroad for the same reason. Even the Council of State, the highest advisory body, warned of this danger. Moreover, the sector is worried that these degrees, which have already graduated hundreds of students in socio-cultural gender studies, artistic creation for video games, bioinformatics or web application development techniques, among others, will be socially "devalued", and also that they will not be able to accredit the new syllabuses in time (they have to be extended to four years) and cannot be offered for some time. "We wouldn't have got into an argument if we hadn't seen that they had professional opportunities. It is clear that now there will be a mismatch because there will be demand but not supply", regrets the rector of the Universitat Ramon Llull, Josep Maria Garrell.

The Catalan Ministry of Universities, the only one in Spain to have issued an unfavourable report prior to the elimination of the three-year degree, also considers it a bad decision. "It is a step backwards," says the director general, Victòria Girona, who denies that three-year degrees are of lower quality. For Girona, the economic argument that says that the 3+2 (three-year bachelor's degree and two-year master's degree) is more expensive than the 4+1 also falls down because the prices of the bachelor's and master's degrees have been equalised. While the ministry has always argued that the reason for eliminating short degrees is that skills are better acquired in four years, sources consulted by ARA see others: Spain's greater interest in converging with Latin America rather than with Europe, or pressure from some Spanish rectorates and trade unions who feared that the expansion of three-year degrees would mean a cut in investment, because university budgets depend to a large extent on the credits students enrol for and, therefore, degrees with fewer credits would mean less money for universities. 

The new law on universities

Where there is still room for the critical voice of the Catalan universities to be heard is in the new Law on Universities (LOSU), which will now begin its parliamentary process. Catalonia has already presented allegations to the preliminary draft presented by Castells. The list is long.


The Catalan rectors criticise that the law hyper-regulates the sector and straitjackets it. "It is very regulatory, there are too many details for it to be an organic law", laments the rector of the URL. Sigalés, from the UOC, agrees: "It is a missed opportunity. It introduces a level of precision and regulation that is contrary to university autonomy and the autonomy of the communities, which have the authority to regulate". 

According to the rector of the UAB and president of the Association of Public Universities of Catalonia (ACUP), Javier Lafuente, the problem is basic: "The law does not define a model for universities, whether they have to be teaching or research universities". For Amat, from the UPF, the mistake is that international best practices have not been taken into account.

Teaching staff and recruitment

For the Catalan ministry, one of the red lines is to increase the number of civil servant teachers from 51% to 55%. This is where the Catalan case comes in: in Spain, permanent teaching staff are civil servants (tenured or tenured professors), but in Catalonia, the only community that has developed its own hiring system, the figures of contracted professors and attachés, who are permanent but not civil servants, were introduced. "Now the law says that 55% must be civil servants, but in Catalonia it is very difficult to achieve this because our labour market has been strengthened. That is why we are asking that instead of civil servants they should be 55% permanently employed", says Girona.

For Amat, the new law does not give autonomy to hire foreign teachers either. And, still on recruitment, teachers' unions warn of the fragility of the measure to reduce temporary teachers from 40% to 20%. "The percentage set by the current law has never been met", recalls COS Universitats spokesman Lluís Frago, who says that without more public funding it is "impossible" to meet the new threshold. According to a report by the observatory of the university system, five of the seven public universities exceed 60% of temporary contracts. Lafuente, from the ACUP, insists that to enforce all that the law says, an increase in public funding is needed, and this depends on the communities.

The rectors also regret that the processes for accrediting degrees have not been simplified and are wary of key issues such as opening up the election of rectors to people from outside the university or the role of the social councils, but they hope that the minister will listen to them. For the time being, it seems that Castells could backtrack and eliminate the new options for choosing the rector. Given the lack of consensus in the sector, there is still plenty of room to change the law before it is passed by the Spanish Parliament.