Dis­dain in Spain

Politi­cians’ qual­i­fi­ca­tions ex­pose sec­tor flaws

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - David.matthews@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Even in a coun­try used to aca­demic fraud scan­dals, the past few months in Spain have been re­mark­able – it would al­most be eas­ier to list the Span­ish politi­cians who don’t have ques­tions hang­ing over their de­grees.

Span­ish news­pa­pers have been full of fevered dis­cus­sion about what level of co­in­ci­dence on Tur­nitin con­sti­tutes pla­gia­rism. Stu­dents have taken to the streets to de­mand an end to cor­rup­tion on cam­pus, chant­ing “we want the mafia out of this univer­sity”.

Ob­servers say the scan­dals are a sign of poor qual­ity as­sur­ance in Span­ish higher ed­u­ca­tion, a need to bring in money to sup­port un­der­funded post­grad­u­ate pro­grammes, and Span­ish politi­cians’ un­healthy ob­ses­sion with aca­demic cre­den­tials.

The cri­sis started in April, when doubts were raised over the mas­ter’s de­grees of two op­po­si­tion Pop­u­lar Party politi­cians: Cristina Ci­fuentes, leader of Madrid’s re­gional gov­ern­ment at the time, and party leader Pablo Casado. Both de­grees were awarded by the Pub­lic Law In­sti­tute at the King Juan Car­los Univer­sity (URJC) in Madrid.

The pair were ac­cused of not tak­ing classes, ex­ams or pro­duc­ing a the­sis – but in both cases they blamed the univer­sity, say­ing they had sim­ply done ev­ery­thing asked of them. Ms Ci­fuentes stepped down in late April fol­low­ing a fur­ther scan­dal over al­leged shoplift­ing, while Mr Casado is still un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the supreme court.

Politi­cians from the rul­ing so­cial­ist party have also been dragged in. Health min­is­ter Car­men Mon­tón was forced to re­sign ear­lier this month af­ter ev­i­dence of pla­gia­rism emerged in a the­sis sub­mit­ted as part of a gen­der stud­ies mas­ter’s, also at URJC. There were re­ports that the univer­sity’s IT sys­tem had been tam­pered with to change her grade to a pass, de­spite the fact that she didn’t sub­mit work.

The scan­dal has now reached the prime min­is­ter, Pe­dro Sánchez, who has been forced to re­lease his eco­nomics doc­tor­ate – com­pleted at an­other in­sti­tu­tion – amid ac­cu­sa­tions of pla­gia­rism.

These events have re­vealed just how keen Span­ish politi­cians are to get their hands on aca­demic cre­den­tials, ac­cord­ing to Manuel Vil­lo­ria, pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at URJC, who de­scribed their hunger for de­grees as a way of spic­ing up oth­er­wise dull CVs. “Most of our politi­cians are pro­fes­sion­als…they de­cide to ded­i­cate their lives to pol­i­tics,” he said. “So some of them de­cide to cre­ate an idea that they’re not only politi­cians, but pro­fes­sors.”

For In­ger Enkvist, pro­fes­sor emerita of Span­ish stud­ies at Lund Univer­sity and an ex­pert on Span­ish univer­sity cor­rup­tion, Spain’s de­gree ad­dic­tion is down to an urge to “show off”. She said: “It’s not just clothes and a car, it’s an aca­demic ti­tle.”

Most of these lat­est scan­dals have fo­cused on URJC, and in par­tic­u­lar its In­sti­tute for Pub­lic Law. On 19 Septem­ber, El País re­ported on a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion over the al­leged mis­use of in­sti­tute credit cards to fund lav­ish spend­ing un­con­nected with teach­ing and unau­tho­rised by more se­nior univer­sity of­fi­cials.

Neither the univer­sity nor the head of the in­sti­tute, En­rique Ál­varez Conde, who con­trolled its ac­counts, re­sponded to a re­quest for com­ment. Any mal­prac­tice is likely lim­ited just to the in­sti­tute, Pro­fes­sor Vil­lo­ria said. But the prob­lems of weak qual­ity as­sur­ance go much fur­ther, he said, par­tic­u­larly at mas­ter’s level.

Span­ish mas­ter’s cour­ses tend to have to fund them­selves from stu­dent fees, said Pro­fes­sor Enkvist, creat­ing a “temp­ta­tion” to re­lax stan­dards. “If you go too far, you get to the sit­u­a­tion of the univer­sity in Madrid [URJC],” she said.

En­ric Fuster, who works at Barcelona-based univer­sity con­sul­tancy Siris Aca­demic, said that aca­demic re­quire­ments and pro­ce­dures in Spain “can vary from depart­ment to depart­ment and, most no­tably, in some uni­ver­si­ties, au­ton­o­mous in­sti­tutes and dis­ci­plines”.

“This would be a symp­tom of a sys­temic prob­lem with the higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem or qual­ity as­sur­ance,” he said, although he added that there are “good uni­ver­si­ties and ex­cel­lent de­part­ments” too.

Raul Gomez, a se­nior lec­turer in in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics at the Univer­sity of Liver­pool who has writ­ten on cor­rup­tion in Span­ish pol­i­tics, pointed out that the UK sys­tem of ex­ter­nal ex­am­in­ers, who check the qual­ity of cour­ses at other in­sti­tu­tions, is lack­ing in Spain.

The re­cent scan­dals are far from unique – other politi­cians have been ac­cused of sim­i­lar aca­demic mis­con­duct for years, Pro­fes­sor Enkvist said. In 2016 Fer­nando Suárez, then URJC pres­i­dent, was forced to quit fol­low­ing pla­gia­rism ac­cu­sa­tions.

“It would be tak­ing the easy way out” to blame this lat­est cri­sis on just one per­son, Pro­fes­sor Enkvist warned.

‘Liar liar’ Madrid politi­cian Cristina Ci­fuentes stepped down af­ter doubts were raised about her mas­ter’s de­gree

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