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19th Mar 2015

Spanish education at a crossroads

One of the most turbulent and complex higher education sectors is that of Spain, where firebrand Minister of Education José Ignacio Wert has already pushed through numerous reforms and shows no signs of slowing down on what is a radical and contentious restructuring. The new legislation is called the Organic Law for the Improvement of Educational Quality (LOMCE), but in popular parlance it is La Ley Wert - or Wert’s Law. At least one of LOMCE’s initiatives was well received. It abolished Spain’s Selectividad, a dreaded university entrance test for inbound international students. But Minister Wert’s other reforms have generated criticism and resistance from all quarters - other political parties, educational bodies, and especially students, who have taken to streets across the country in protest.

The landscape of Spanish reform

LOMCE was ratified in November 2013, but many of its details were still to be determined at that time. Spain’s ruling Partido Popular government says it hopes to:

  • reduce high drop-out rates;
  • curb the number of Spaniards who are neither studying nor employed; and
  • improve student scores on international academic tests such as PISA.

But in Spain, more than most countries, the overriding agent of change is austerity - specifically EU-mandated spending cuts. Spanish education spending amounted to 4.4% of gross domestic product in 2014, but the EU is demanding that expenditures fall below 4% in 2015. Some reductions in public funding to institutions have been offset by increasing university tuition fees, cutting student scholarships by US$50 million, increasing class sizes, and cutting teachers' salaries. These measures come on the heels of previous education cuts of US$2.2 billion and the cost goes beyond the financial: this year, Spanish universities have 45,000 fewer students enrolled than last year.

The reform most likely to impact international student mobility is legislation reducing undergraduate university course length from four years to three, and increasing master’s courses from one year to two.

Minister Wert says compressing the time needed to earn an undergraduate degree means Spanish students will be qualified to enter the job market at 21, and that Spanish families as a whole can save US$168 million in school costs. The move also aligns the Spanish higher education timeline with the rest of Europe, making it easier for Spaniards to conduct portions of their studies abroad, and smoothing the way for foreign students to study at Spanish universities. Speaking to the Financial Times, Minister Wert said, “We are currently isolated from the rest of Europe. We currently don’t recognise graduates from other countries with a three-year degree, even if they come from Cambridge.” The minister’s Cambridge reference is apt. Non-compatibility with the best universities in Europe is a problem for a Spanish education sector that already, according to the OECD, produces secondary graduates less skilled than those in top-ranked nations. Mr Wert says his legislation will compel universities to modernise and streamline their courses, which would have an effect on their overall quality. Many Spanish students, however, argue the opposite - that shortening undergrad degrees to three years will harm their quality. They also consider the new two-year master’s programmes just a way of extracting money from students, since those programmes are more expensive. Yet there’s little doubt that Spaniards trying to enroll in PhD programmes at European universities often find that their one-year master’s qualifications are problematic. Spanish undergrad degrees were once as much as five years in length and master’s degrees ranged from six months to two years. The 1999 introduction of the Bologna Process and implementation of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) prompted Spain to cut undergraduate degrees to four years, and master’s programmes to one. Thus the LOMCE legislation enacted by the current government is not the first national education reform to arise in response to external factors. Minister Wert speaks often of external factors, citing a need to align Spain’s education sector with those of other countries, but many observers point out that Spain isn’t like other countries. Its two most-significant differences are that it is a decentralised union of 17 autonomous regions, and that it suffered a civil war instigated by General Francisco Franco, who established a fascist dictatorship and for decades carried out violent repression against various ethnic groups in the country. Bestowing autonomy to the regions has helped hold the jigsaw puzzle of post-dictatorship Spain together, but still any reforms decreed by the national government have to contend with the memories of the country’s autocratic past under Franco.

The most controversial reforms

As new details of LOMCE have emerged since 2013, opposition has grown. One of the law’s many facets has made Spanish the language of instruction for core subjects, and these by law must comprise 50% of school curricula. Regional languages can be used only for specialty and optional subjects. In Catalonia, opposition to this change was so fierce that the central government finally declared that if the Catalan government did not obey the law, it would give parents money to enroll their children in private schools, then later deduct the amount from funds normally transferred from Madrid to Catalonia. Taking such a hard line played well with Spanish nationalists but angered Catalonians. Similarly, when Minister Wert said at one point he wanted to “españolizar” - or hispaniscise - Catalan students, Spanish nationalists approved, but to Catalonians the statement sounded like encroachment on regional affairs, and triggered widespread negative reactions in the region. Even the King of Spain stepped in at that point to chastise the minister, but the damage had been done. The Spanish government’s main political advantage is that the Partido Popular can use a majority in the legislature to enact laws with no votes from other parties. But employing this de facto single party rule has led to every aspect of education reforms being bitterly opposed in the autonomous regions. LOMCE’s language clauses are being challenged by Catalonia in Spain’s Supreme Court, joining challenges to various aspects of the law by the Basque Country, Andalucía, Asturias, and the Canary Islands. LOMCE’s Spanish language provision does not impact strongly upon Spain’s international education landscape, but its unpopularity splashes fuel upon a fire that threatens to derail the government’s entire agenda. Opposition parties have vowed to overturn LOMCE wholesale, including presumably the provisions most useful to international educators - those aligning Spain’s tertiary timeline with the rest of Europe.

Tough choices for young students

Perhaps as controversial as the language aspects of LOMCE are provisions that provide for standardised testing to sort secondary students into academic and non-academic tracks, effectively determining each child’s future career path while he or she is still in their mid-teens. The Ministry of Education website explains that such tracking is part of its plan to identify the diverse talents of students, and provide more individual attention and more flexible schooling options. But critics say the new system will be used to weed out less academically-successfully students, and social scientists point to research showing that the sooner students decide upon careers, the more their choices fall into gender stereotypes. The Spanish government positions LOMCE as a response to immutable modern realities, but some critics see the programme as merely ideological. The minister’s “españolizar” gaffe seemed to many observers to reveal such thinking. In Catalonia, where the language of instruction in classrooms has for years been Catalan, local children score above the national average in Spanish-administered PISA tests. Thus to Catalonians the language provision in LOMCE seems aimed less at education than at Catalonia’s cultural independence. Other aspects of the reform programme have raised the same suspicions of ideology. In the past, religion was an optional subject for students. LOMCE has made it a main subject for students to decide whether to decline or not. Because the classes are calculated into students’ grade point averages, by default these new religion courses create differences between those who take them and those who opt out. This in turn affects eligibility for university grants and scholarships.

December determines the future

The longevity of Partido Popular’s reform programme, and its ultimate effect on the international education landscape, hinges on the upcoming December 2015 election. At stake will be all 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies and 208 of 266 seats in the Senate. The upstart party Podemos has made extraordinary gains in the last year, rising from near-zero recognition to poll only a few points below the ruling Partido Popular. Podemos is analogous to Greece’s Syriza - populist, anti-austerity, and set to challenge the EU’s commitment to austerity. Another rising party is Ciudadanos. It originated in Catalonia but has increased its national profile. It has made education an important part of its platform by vowing to modernise Spain’s school system to teach skills beyond rote memorisation, which it contends the present system emphasises far too much. Podemos, Ciudadanos, and PSOE - Spain’s powerful socialist party, which polls near-even with Partido Popular - have all vowed to overturn the government’s current reforms. So far the race is too tight to call, and it is too early to say whether opposition promises to repeal LOMCE would be kept. Spain’s outbound and inbound mobility will be strongly affected by the choice voters make, but the answer will not come until the end of this year.

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