275 layoffs as university asks staff to make videos

Never before has a Spanish university presented an Employment Regulation Plan (or ERE in Spanish) – which involves workers leaving permanently as part of a ‘collective dismissal’ – to its teaching staff.

That is why the 275 layoffs – mostly teachers – proposed by the British investment fund Permira at the Universidad Europea has caused fear and anger among higher education institutions across the country. As a consequence, ‘indefinite’ strikes are being planned for this month.

“Despite the great work done by all and the commitment shown to the students and the university, in order to carry out the transformation that it needs, it is essential to reorganise the structure and resources of the university,” said the university’s CEO, Miguel Carmelo, in a statement on 14 December.

“Taking advantage of the pandemic, they have made an aggressive change: they remove class hours and ask teachers to post videos in digital blocks that the company reserves the right to sell to third parties,” said Clara Ramas, member of parliament (MP) for Más Madrid (a Madrid based left-wing party) in the Madrid Assembly and professor at the University of Zaragoza, about what is happening at the Universidad Europea.

“In this way they have cut teachers and increased ratios. They go from 7.5 groups per teacher to nine, and from 30 students per teacher to 45. This means a decrease in the quality of teaching.”

It has been said that 26,000 students will be affected by the changes.

Each student pays about €1,200 (US$1,500) per month. For students in the first year of medicine, the figure is close to €20,000 (US$24,000).

The government, through its ministries of labour and universities, is trying to mediate.

Verónica Martínez Barbero, director general of the ministry of labour, met on 2 February with the company and the workers and showed the government’s concern about the layoffs. However, she made it clear that Permira, despite its profits from the university business, can make layoffs for economic, technical, organisational or production reasons.

Madrid’s Universidad Europea was founded in 1989 under the name of the European Center for Higher Studies, a centre attached to the Complutense University of Madrid. The government of Felipe Gonzalez granted it recognition as a private university in 1995. Its main campus is located in Villaviciosa de Odón (Madrid) and is widely known thanks to the fact that many scenes from the television series Élite (Netflix) are filmed there.

The university has branches in Madrid, Valencia, Tenerife and Lisbon and made between €15.6 million and €50 million (depending on the source) pre-tax profits in 2018.

Throughout its history, the university has changed owners several times. Just over two years ago, Permira, a London-based private equity fund, paid €770 million to acquire it. One of its first decisions was to sell the student residence located on campus.

The university has a reputation for student care. Students have a dedicated guidance counsellor throughout their course, and the university guarantees a high level of job placement, thanks to its contacts with companies.

“Students value the close relationship with teachers; it is one of our strengths. Virtualising all this is a change from the project we believe in. Students are going to be greatly affected,” one professor who prefers not to be named told University World News.

The layoffs will affect staff at all of the university’s sites in Spain – specifically, 221 professionals located in Madrid, 47 in the Valencian Community and seven in the Canary Islands.

Fears for the university’s future

The teaching staff fear that the collective dismissal really hides an intention to change the educational project towards a distance university, oriented towards students from Asia and Latin America, with greater purchasing power.

“They only care about productivity, which is more class hours. They don’t care about research projects,” said another professor. “We believe that what they want to do is to cut up the campus because if they are committed to digitalisation it is no longer necessary. They have seen that there is a market in Asia and Latin America that demands European degrees.”

In a meeting with the press, a representative from the ministry of universities stressed in November that it was “great” for a venture capital fund to make money, as long as it did not neglect the quality of its teaching and research.

Every five years the teaching plan of degree courses is reviewed, but if there are ‘essential changes’ to be made, the university has to notify the authorities beforehand.

Universidad Europea says it has done so. “Our students will continue to receive their 25 hours per credit on the basis of our model, which includes face-to-face classes, internships and academically directed activities,” a representative from the university’s department of communication said.

The university started a modernisation process many months ago with the aim of adapting it to new trends in the higher education sector and new social demands, the representative added.

“This includes many changes such as for example portfolio renovation, by eliminating 118 outdated or less-demanded programmes, the reduction of less-popular optional subjects, and the removal of small groups with less than 5-10 students, among other measures.

“This affects all areas of the institution, not only faculty, and is necessary to ensure the university is prepared to face current and future challenges and be at the forefront of higher education.”

The reduction in teaching and non-teaching staff has not been made for economic reasons but for organisational reasons, the representative said. “We are a face-to-face university and have no intention of going virtual; some of the things that have been published are not true.”

Counsellor Eduardo Sicilia (from the centre-right party Ciudadanos) to MP Ramas said: “When the ERE takes place, the Community of Madrid has tools through the Madrid Foundation for Knowledge to ensure that this university continues to develop its activity under quality standards.

“The agency will be our guarantor so that a potential restructuring in the teaching staff does not affect the training and research activity. And, of course, the learning outcomes of our students.”

Footprint of deeper debate

But Ramas says: “This is not just a labour conflict; it is the footprint of a much deeper debate. An offensive against the very concept of university, or can anyone call a bunch of canned videos a university?”

Ramas extended the criticism to other private universities: “They are using the reserve army of a whole generation of young academics who could not enter [university staff] because of the crisis of 2010 and are subjected to the boot of the [evaluation agency] ANECA. Their alternative is unemployment […] or mercenaries as proofreaders or instructors at private universities for six euros an hour.”