SPAIN: Quality moves to centre stage

Quality assurance is no longer a matter of choice for Spanish universities: it is increasingly being used to determine how much funding they will receive. The latest amendments to the Universities Law of 2001 mean that since autumn last year, all new programmes must be approved by the national quality agency ANECA before they can be launched.

"It's a big change," says ANECA's general co-ordinator Eduardo Coba. "This way the curriculum becomes a contract between the university and society in specifying what skills the graduate will leave with, how the university will accomplish this, which resources it will use and what kind of a quality system it has put in place to ensure this."

On the one hand, having to meet these quality benchmarks means tighter state control over universities - but on the other, they will gain more freedom to design the new courses they think are necessary. Until now universities could offer only first degrees that were included in a list approved by the central government. With the change in the law, they can design any course within reason as long as it covers an internationally recognised discipline.

The new programmes will be subject to ongoing quality checks for the first six years, with the possibility of accreditation at the end of this period although it is still not clear who will be in charge of the process.

Having a national quality agency is relatively new in Spain, a country with strong regional identities. ANECA was only created in 2001 and, in the absence of a national body, many regional education authorities set up their own quality agencies, starting with Catalonia's Agency for the Quality of the University System that was established in 1996. Out of the 17 regions, 11 now have their own agencies and the division of responsibilities between regional and national bodies is sometimes blurred.

Regions such as Andalusia and Galicia are using their powers to introduce new models for allocating funding according to performance and results. During 2007, Andalusia launched a scheme to allocate 30% of its total budget for higher education according to each university's performance over a total of 35 benchmarks. Of these, 60% measure quality in teaching, 30% quality in research and the remaining 10% innovation in how the institution is run.

Commenting on the effect of the changes in a speech last December, Andalusian Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry Francisco Vallejo said: "This provides a unique opportunity for our universities to modernise."