SPAIN: OECD: Could do better

Spanish higher education has come a long way in recent years, making significant progress in areas such as quality assurance and institutional autonomy. But issues such as inefficiency, lack of responsiveness to the needs of society and academic inbreeding still plague the system, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The report, OECD Review of Tertiary Education - Spain, was released on 10 March and comes as the final instalment of a broader initiative covering 24 countries. The series aims to help countries see how the organisation, management and delivery of higher education can contribute to their social and economic goals. It follows similar reports on China and Japan published on 5 March.

Spanish higher education has changed dramatically over the past 30 years and the change has been mainly for the better. The system has grown and diversified - coping with a large increase in demand and making room for a private sector with more than a dozen new private universities established over the past 10 years.

During the 1990s, regional governments took charge of funding and various aspects of higher education policy, while more recently a comprehensive system of governance and quality assurance has been put in place in preparation for Spanish integration into the European Higher Education Area.

"The Spanish central quality agency ANECA is one of the most advanced in Europe and was one of the first to join the European Quality Assurance Registry," said Paulo Santiago, Senior Analyst at the OECD's Directorate for Education and co-author of the report.

But the authors conclude that the system is still too academically driven: "What we mean by this is that what happens is driven by the interests of the academics themselves with little reference to the needs of society," said Santiago.

This shows in the range of programmes on offer which is largely decided according to academics' areas of expertise rather than as a response to student preferences or demand from the labour market. Low student enrolments and frequent duplication of programmes are one indication of this.

This problem is compounded by what Santiago calls "inbreeding" in academic recruitment: "Many institutions hire their own PhD graduates so there is not an open market for academics," he said.

Roughly half of Spanish academics are civil servants with tenure, while the rest are salaried staff on contracts with varying degrees of job security. This means people with very different status and conditions are often to be found doing similar work and also that universities may have little say over whom they hire.

"Our overall message is that institutions should do more of the management of their human resources," said Santiago. "When one of most important strategic resources of an institution is not under its control, this makes it hard to compete."

Spanish higher education is still not responsive enough to labour market needs, says the OECD, and this is shown by the lack of mechanisms to channel these needs. The report welcomes the advent of social councils which allow employers to have some input in university management, but note that their influence is slight.

For the OECD, this is not helped by the fact that higher vocational education is completely disconnected from the university system. It sees recent government restructuring with universities and higher vocational education now the responsibility of two different ministries as a step in the wrong direction.

"This comes at a time when the trend is to diversify the tertiary education system and pay a lot more attention to non-universities," said Santiago, "In Spain they are doing good work but most classes still take place in secondary schools and this doesn't help raise the status."

Equity is another challenge. The report describes how women's participation in Spanish higher education has grown to the point where by 2003, female students accounted for 52% of enrolments. It welcomes the efforts made to promote equal opportunities for women and increase opportunities for older students.

But social origin still conditions access to Spanish universities and the authors call for more attention to be paid to this issue: "There is some evidence that Spain is regressing in terms of equity, students from richer families are being subsidised by poorer families and the entire population via taxes," said Santiago. "This fact may be less evident because in Spain as in most Southern European countries, students expect and get a lot of help from their families."

The review was based on information obtained from Spain, including a 10-day country visit in May 2007.