In Spain, uni­ver­si­ties are in another cen­tury, says Sa­muel Martín-Bar­bero

The con­ser­vatism of Spain’s uni­ver­si­ties and em­ploy­ers harms na­tional pros­per­ity, says Sa­muel Martín-Bar­bero

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Sa­muel Martín-Bar­bero is the rec­tor of Camilo José Cela Univer­sity in Madrid.

If you scroll down a list of the bach­e­lor’s cour­ses of­fered by a typ­i­cal pub­lic univer­sity in Spain, you will no­tice that al­most all of them sound some­what ar­chaic.

“Road, canal and port en­gi­neer­ing” or “hill en­gi­neer­ing” are good ex­am­ples. Such pro­grammes were ap­peal­ing enough in the age of Brunel and Bazal­gette, but they are un­likely to ex­cite to­day’s dig­i­tal savvy un­der­grad­u­ates, whose in­ter­na­tional peers are in­creas­ingly com­bin­ing a range of arts, hu­man­i­ties and science sub­jects.

Fu­ture-ori­ented de­grees in­cor­po­rat­ing dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines, such as man­age­ment and bi­ol­ogy, psy­chol­ogy and in­for­mat­ics or phi­los­o­phy and physics, may be com­mon in the US and the UK, but they have no place in the Span­ish sec­tor, where most learn­ing still takes place in aca­demic de­part­ments en­tirely dis­con­nected from each other.

Hide­bound, siloed think­ing is en­demic in the Span­ish academy. In­no­va­tion is ex­tremely rare. The du­ra­tion of cour­ses, the con­fig­u­ra­tion of learn­ing spaces and the styles of teach­ing re­main largely uni­form across the coun­try – es­pe­cially in the state-funded uni­ver­si­ties at­tended by 80 per cent of stu­dents.

Uni­ver­si­ties are not en­tirely to blame for this state of af­fairs. If Span­ish higher ed­u­ca­tion is still re­luc­tant to em­brace in­ter­dis­ci­plinar­ity, it is at least partly be­cause Span­ish em­ploy­ers con­tinue to de­fend the pre­con­ceived idea that sciences and the arts are stand-alone ar­eas of knowl­edge with noth­ing use­ful to say to each other. Stu­dents who at­tempt to strad­dle them would be deemed to have less pro­fes­sional cred­i­bil­ity.

So while grad­u­ates in ar­chi­tec­ture or en­gi­neer­ing might find em­ploy­ment in jour­nal­ism or fash­ion else­where in the world, rel­a­tively few grad­u­ates in Spain seek jobs out­side the fields they ma­jored in. YouTube chief ex­ec­u­tive Su­san Wo­j­ci­cki stud­ied his­tory and lit­er­a­ture, but such a back­ground would be vir­tu­ally un­think­able for a Span­ish ex­ec­u­tive. Only about 5 per cent of hu­man­i­ties grad­u­ates in Spain go on to work in the cor­po­rate sec­tor; this com­pares with 37 per cent in the US, ac­cord­ing to the Everis Foun­da­tion.

All that said, many suc­cess­ful Span­ish transna­tional com­pa­nies in the banking, tele­coms, in­sur­ance and en­ergy sec­tors are start­ing to de­mand a dif­fer­ent type of mul­ti­lin­gual, mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary grad­u­ate. Uni­ver­si­ties need to adapt to that and make it cen­tral to their strate­gic vi­sions if Spain is to ful­fil its po­ten­tial in other cor­po­rate sec­tors, and to ad­dress the or­gan­i­sa­tional, de­mo­graphic and fi­nan­cial chal­lenges faced by its so­ci­ety.

Change will be an up­hill strug­gle. Break­ing through the myr­iad reg­u­la­tions and leg­is­la­tion im­posed on uni­ver­si­ties at both the na­tional and the re­gional level will take time and per­sua­sion. Span­ish uni­ver­si­ties’ strict hi­er­ar­chies and gov­er­nance struc­tures are also likely to im­pede dis­rup­tive pro­gres­sive think­ing, as are the risk-averse na­tional pro­fes­sional as­so­ci­a­tions, which still wield mas­sive in­flu­ence.

Con­ser­vatism is ap­par­ent even in the web­sites and mis­sion state­ments of uni­ver­si­ties – if the logo of one in­sti­tu­tion was swapped for that of another, few peo­ple would no­tice the dif­fer­ence.

Forg­ing stronger links with other world-lead­ing uni­ver­si­ties abroad would be a good start. Spain may be the most pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for Eras­mus+ stu­dents, but its in­ter­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion ef­forts are only just start­ing. More ex­ten­sive in­te­gra­tion of English in the cur­ricu­lum will help to drive it fur­ther. English has been the lin­gua franca for decades in nu­mer­ous pro­grammes in north­ern Europe, but it con­tin­ues to be mar­ginal in the Span­ish aca­demic syl­labus. Spain could look to the ex­am­ple of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean “51st state” of the US, where Span­ish is spo­ken in the class­room but text­books are in English.

Each and ev­ery one of us in the Span­ish academy must seek to pro­vide the mix of knowl­edge and prac­tice that the coun­try needs to fur­ther its eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. Specif­i­cally, teach­ing-ori­ented uni­ver­si­ties should stop try­ing to im­i­tate their ri­vals and should in­stead fo­cus on im­ple­ment­ing more orig­i­nal cour­ses and en­sur­ing that they are taught by ef­fec­tive and highly mo­ti­vated fac­ulty.

These are test­ing and un­cer­tain times for West­ern democ­ra­cies. In­no­va­tion is cru­cial. Sim­ply of­fer­ing the same path trod­den by stu­dents in the 19th cen­tury is no longer an op­tion.

The du­ra­tion of cour­ses, the con­fig­u­ra­tion of learn­ing spaces and the styles of teach­ing re­main largely uni­form across the coun­try

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