Franco’s university sanctions regulations to be replaced

For the first time in the history of Spanish democracy, a government is proposing to standardise sanctions within the university community with a code that respects constitutional principles.

The Law of Coexistence – which will replace regulations brought in during the dictatorship of former general Francisco Franco, in 1954 – prioritises mediation but penalises harassment or the copying of theses, with expulsions of up to three years.

The dictatorship’s regulations are, according to the government “in clear contradiction with the democratic principles of our society”. Specifically, the regulations did not enshrine a student's right of defence, offences had no ‘expiry date’, and they did not take into account the basic principles of responsibility and proportionality.

For example, if a student was expelled from one Spanish university, under the existing law they may find themselves expelled from them all.

The Minister of Universities, Manuel Castells, who himself was repressed by the Franco regime during his student years, intends to put an end to the ‘Academic Discipline Regulations for Official Higher Education Centres’. The regulations are a relic of the dictatorship that was designed to maintain public order on campuses, and which today only apply to students, as staff were excluded in 1985.

Castells, who has previously described himself as an anarchist and who once became a political refugee in Paris after riots at the University of Barcelona, wanted in 2020 to simply repeal the “unconstitutional and obsolete” regulation without replacing it, but rectors threatened to rebel if he left them without sanctioning tools.

Successive ombudsmen warned in 1990, 2008 and 2012 of the need for a regulation adapted to today's world, but the only previous serious attempt to approve a text was made by former education minister Ángel Gabilondo in 2010. The calling of a snap election at the time, however, scuppered his plans.

Castells was asked by University World News why the change was being prioritised now, but his press department responded that “for scheduling reasons it is impossible for us to answer”.

It is believed that part of the reason for this response was due to the furore that arose on Tuesday when the proposal was put to the Cabinet and the press asked in a briefing whether the law would apply to private universities.

During the briefing the Minister of Universities clarified that the new law is strictly applicable to publicly owned campuses “which is our scope of intervention”, and not those in private hands.

This created considerable confusion, because private universities are only being ‘encouraged’ to insert the new rules into their internal codes. The 1954 decree did not distinguish between public and private; at that time the only private universities that existed were in the hands of religious groups.

When the Conference of Spanish University Rectors (CRUE) was asked for its response to this, it confirmed that “private universities do not enter into the norm itself, but if you think about the inspiring principles behind the law, it invites them to work on coexistence and mediation, like public universities. We believe that all private universities will develop their own rules and… will surely adapt to this type of more modern strategy of conflict resolution”.

Effectively the law emphasises mediation rather than punishment, but demands that ‘very serious offences’, such as hazing (forcing someone into an act that may cause them harm in order to ‘initiate them’ into an organisation) or plagiarism in doctoral theses, are punishable by sentences ranging from two months to three years’ expulsion.

Acts of violence based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin or disability will be considered very serious misconduct. Further, under the new law, universities will be required to actively promote measures to prevent harassment.

‘Serious offences’ will be dealt with by sentences of up to one month's expulsion, which cannot coincide either with exams or the enrolment period, so that the offence is not over-punitive for the student. Minor offences, on the other hand, have the possibility of being settled with a private reprimand; and never on a bulletin board as can occur at present.

Coexistence Commission

Additionally, universities will be required to create a Coexistence Commission in charge of channelling initiatives and proposals to improve coexistence, and promote use of the mediation mechanism. This commission will have an equal representation of students, teaching and research staff and administrative staff.

Ministry sources estimate that the law will reach Congress this year and are confident that, as it has the backing of CRUE and university students, it will be approved and come into force in January 2022.

“The law is on the right track. It has a more real sense of what the university should be. It is a priority to have a code of coexistence, with the key being mediation, and that there are alternative processes to mere punishment,” argued José Antonio Mayoral, rector of the University of Zaragoza and president of CRUE’s general secretariat.

“Perhaps some will have to be expelled because it is unavoidable,” he concluded. “[But now at least] the law of coexistence will create a general regulatory framework.”