PSOE plan to offer women free first year on STEM courses

A proposal by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español) to offer a ‘free first year’ to women enrolling on higher education courses attended mostly by men – that is, with over 70% male students – has been criticised as ‘almost Stalinist’ by opponents.

The proposal, contained in a document with 370 other measures released on 3 September, seeks to persuade Pablo Iglesias' leftist Unidas Podemos party to support a socialist government in Spain.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who won an election in April but failed to secure a majority, has until 23 September to show he can form a government.

The purpose of the specific proposal, the PSOE pointed out in their ‘Common Progressive Programme’, is to "eliminate the gender gap" in some higher education courses, particularly in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The Socialists aim to avoid ‘gender educational segregation’ in publicly funded universities, and in doing so, to open the door to more "necessary normative changes", possibly by doing the same in postgraduate courses, to correct gender inequality in attendance.

If the programme proposal is followed, female students in Spain would no longer pay for the first year of higher education on computer degrees, for example, which in the 2016-17 academic year was almost 89% male, according to data from the Spanish ministry of education and engineering, industry and construction.

Eva Alcón, the rector of the Jaume I University, who is also responsible for the equality policies of the Spanish University Rectors’ Association, is one of the proponents of the proposal. Alcón argues that the measure "would contribute to greater progress in the fight against gender inequality" but might be "insufficient" and should "be complemented with others" in these male-dominated occupational fields.

Heavily criticised

However, the proposal was heavily criticised by Marta Marín, spokeswoman for Ciudadanos (a Spanish centre-right party), who accused the Socialists of trying to impose a "Soviet Union" style policy.

She said: "To promote the presence of women in STEM careers, what you can't do is treat us like idiots. It's patriarchal and sexist. They can't tell us what to do and what to study; this didn't happen even under Stalin.

“The PSOE believes that people choose the career they will pursue for economic reasons [payment of the enrolment fee] but this is not the case. Besides that, I don't think it's fair: it's not fair that the son of a street sweeper from Alicante pays the registration fee for the daughter of a millionaire from Rozas [Madrid]."

Sandra Moneo of the People’s Party agreed with the criticism and accused the PSOE of trying to "direct the lives of women".

On the other hand, the newspaper El Español provided an example of a male student nurse, Jonay, who argued that: "If women are not going to have to pay for engineering courses, I shouldn't pay for nursing either because I'm male.”

In the 2016-17 academic year, more than 70% of the students attending higher education courses in the areas of health and social services in Spain were female.

The wording of this PSOE proposal is surprising given the party's position in January 2018 that all higher education students in Spain, and not just women who attend courses in areas where men predominate, should be exempt from the first-year enrolment fee.

"We don't want anyone to miss university because they can't pay their first year’s tuition fee," said socialist leader Pedro Sánchez at the time.

Spain has held three general elections in four years and is facing further political turmoil if Sánchez cannot form a government.