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Bachelor's degrees to last 3 years instead of 4: new university reform stirs Catalan students' anger

In times of shrinking public funding, higher tuition fees and fewer scholarships, a controversial new university reform has been approved by the Spanish Government. The so-called "flexibilisation" of Bachelor's degrees or the "3+2" system has been introduced, provoking a wave of protests and criticism across the university community. The new reform allows universities to choose an undergraduate programme length that ranges from 3 to 4 years, abandoning the 4-year scheme adopted in 2010. Then, a one- or two-year Master's will follow. Many fear that it will devaluate undergraduate degrees, obliging students to undertake a Master’s in order to find a decent job. Moreover, as postgraduate tuition fees are substantially higher, some think that the overall price of education is likely to rise, pushing the Spanish university system towards the US model. Other arguments against the reform are: the lack of democratic discussion on the new text, the temporal proximity of the previous reform and the potential increase in disorder within the system.

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07 April 2015 06:03 PM

by

Valentina Marconi

Barcelona (CNA).- In times of shrinking public funding, increasing university fees and stricter requirements for obtaining a scholarship, a controversial new university reform has been approved by the Spanish Government. On 30 January 2015, the so-called "flexibilisation" of Bachelor's degrees or the "3+2" system was introduced, provoking a wave of protests and criticism across the university community. The new reform allows universities to choose an undergraduate programme length that ranges from 3 to 4 years, abandoning the 4-year duration scheme adopted comprehensively in 2010. Then, a one- or two-year Master's will follow. Many fear that it will devaluate undergraduate degrees, obliging students to undertake a Master's in order to find a decent job. Moreover, as postgraduate tuition fees are substantially higher, some think that the overall price of university education for students' families is likely to rise, pushing the Spanish university system towards the US model. Among other popular arguments against the reform are: the alleged lack of democratic discussion on the new text, the temporal proximity of the previous reform and the potential increase in disorder within the system. However, the reform's supporters claim that it will favour students' international mobility and mutual diploma recognition, bringing Catalonia closer to Europe.


About 300 students took to the streets of downtown Barcelona

On 24 March, anti-capitalist students' union Sindicat d'Estudiants (SE) and pro-free public education students' association Front Estudiantil Unitari (FEU) organised a protest rally against the recently-approved university reform. However, it did not have the support of all the Catalan student organisations. Left-wing pro-Catalan independence students' group Sindicat d'Estudiants dels Països Catalans (SEPC) and progressive Catalonia-based students' union Associació de Joves Estudiants de Catalunya (AJEC) chose not to participate. The former did so out of criticism for the SE for having unilaterally announced the protest and the latter chose not to participate on the grounds that the protest came so close after the recent student strike. The protest took place in the Catalan cities of Barcelona, Girona and Tarragona. Adrià Junyent, the FEU spokesperson, declared that it aimed at bringing together students and professors willing to fight for a public, high-quality university education system.

Overall participation in the protest was low. In most universities, classes continued as normal (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Universitat de Girona, Universitat de Lleida), while in others the protest had a minor impact (Universitat Pompeu Fabra and Universitat Rovira i Virgili). In some faculties of the Universitat de Barcelona (UB), the attendance rate was noteworthy: in the Faculties of Law and Education reaching 70% and 90% respectively.

This protest follows a 48-hour strike held on the 25th and 26th of February which had the support of all the main Catalan students' unions. According to Sindicat d'Estudiants, in the strike, some 15,000 students participated in Barcelona, while local police estimates put participation at 6,000 people.

"We oppose both the process and the legislative tool (a decree and not a law) through which the new reform was approved. We think that it lacks the consent of the university community as much as the other reforms approved in the last years", AJEC University Area Co-ordinator, Rubén Ramiro, stated. His organisation, he explained, is set on pursuing two main strategies against it: street protests – "to show the strong opposition to the reform" - and talks with institutions "such as political groups and bodies of student representation within the university".

However, students do not seem to be the only ones who disagree. On 2 February, the Conference of Spanish University Chancellors (CRUE) called for a special session where a 2-year moratorium on the application of the reform was approved. Nonetheless, some of the student organisations think that this measure is not strong enough. "We are very critical of the hesitant posture taken by the Conference of Spanish University Chancellors. They need to ask for the immediate withdrawal of the text, not for a 2-year moratorium. They are asking for the latter because they have realised that the student movement against the reform is very strong", Borja Latorre, spokesperson for Sindicat d'Estudiants said. "All the Spanish University Chancellors care about is winning time in order to make the student movement relax and be able to apply the new reform in some time" he concluded.

Bachelor's degrees could last 3 years (instead of 4) and be 180 credits (instead of 240)

Since 2010, Spanish universities' study plans are organised according to a "4+1" formula: a 4-year Bachelor's (240 credits), followed by a 1-year Master's (60 credits) for a total of 300 credits. With the approval of the new reform, universities will be able to design Bachelor's degrees that go from a minimum of 180 credits (in 3 years) to a maximum of 240 credits (in 4 years). Professional degrees – such as medicine, architecture and engineering – will not be affected by the change.

Universities will be in charge of drafting the new study plans, prioritising general content for Bachelor's degrees and more specialised content for Master's courses. If they decide to introduce 3-year Bachelor's courses consisting of 180 credits, the corresponding Master's will become 2-year courses of 120 credits (herein lies the potential shift from a "4+1" to a "3+2" formula). The total of 300 credits remains the same and corresponds to the minimum requirement for starting a PhD.

Spanish universities will be able to adopt the new reform starting from the 2015/2016 academic year. The adoption of the new system will be carried out on a voluntary basis and without a fixed deadline. The 2-year moratorium approved by the Conference of Spanish University Chancellors is not binding. Some Catalan universities will offer the first 3-year Bachelor's courses in 2016/2017.

According to some, the reform promotes flexibility; according to others, instability

According to Professor Mireia Trenchs, Vice Chancellor of Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF), the reform will have a positive impact on the Catalan university system, promoting its flexibility. "Its objective is not the introduction of the "3+2" model but the flexibilisation of Bachelor's degrees", Trenchs explained. "Universities – singularly or in co-ordination with others - will be able to select the most appropriate duration for their Bachelor's courses and students will choose among a larger range of study options (3, 3+1, 3+2, 3+1+1, 4+1 and 4+2)" she said. "The Catalan university system is blocked and all the universities already wanted 3-year Bachelor courses. The world is changing very fast and there are academic disciplines that need adapting in order to keep up. Granting flexibility to the system makes it able to keep up with future changes", the Vice Chancellor concluded.

However, not everyone thinks that the change introduced by the reform is for the better. For example, UPC Professor Vera Sacristán highlights that it will create "much confusion" among students and their families, making even more complicated the choice of university course. "The fact that some Bachelor's programmes have a different duration is justified. It already happens with, among others, medical degrees. However, it does not seem reasonable that the same discipline in different universities can be organised according to study plans where the duration can differentiate by 33%", she explained.

Students will only save money if they stop at Bachelor's level and do not take a Master's

Spanish Education Minister, José Ignacio Wert, said that the university reform will allow families to save €150 million, due to the 1-year reduction in the duration of Bachelor's degrees. According to Professor Sacristán, it is still too early to assess the reform's impact on families' budgets. "If students decide to end their university career after a Bachelor's course, a 3-year programme will make them save money. However, the one-year reduction in Bachelor's degrees will make the course content more general and therefore many students will have to take a Master's in order to complete their university training", she said. "As in Spain the cost of Master's credits are much higher than those of Bachelor's - in contrast with the rest of Europe - for people following their undergraduate studies with a 2-year Master's, the overall cost of university education will increase", Sacristán highlighted.

AJEC University Area Co-ordinator Rubén Ramiro highlighted that while one credit of a Bachelor's course in public universities costs between €26 and €40, one from a Master's costs a minimum of €46. "With the reduction of the duration of the Bachelor's degree to 3 years the content will shrink (and be devaluated), obliging people to take Master's degrees in order to find a decent job later on", he said.

According to a 2014 report by Observatori del Sistema Universitari, in Catalonia the yearly cost of a Bachelor's degree in public universities ranges from €1,750 to €2,600, while that of a Master's course runs from €2,500 to €4,000. A comparison among 38 different European countries and regions shows that Catalonia – together with Slovenia, Spain as a whole, Greece, Ireland, Lithuania and Cyprus – has Master's tuition fees substantially higher than those of Bachelor's degrees. In particular, the maximum price of a Master's course is 44% higher than the maximum price of a Bachelor's one.

With the alignment to the "3+2" model, Catalonia will become closer to Europe

According to many, the current configuration of the university system thwarts Catalan students' international mobility and mutual diploma recognition. The reform's supporters think that the new model will promote Catalonia's convergence with Europe. "As the majority of EU States either have 3-year Bachelor's degrees or a flexible system (where 3-year and 4-year courses coexist), this will allow a rise in the number of dual-Bachelor's degrees in partnership with European Universities", UPF Vice Chancellor Trenchs said. Moreover, "students' mobility will improve, especially with regard to the number of international students coming to study in Catalonia, both from inside and outside the EU", she added.

According to Borja Latorre, spokesperson for Sindicat d'Estudiants, the impact of the reform on students' mobility will be very selective. Indeed, it will favour only those students who can afford higher education and living costs abroad. "The Spanish Ministry of Education is suggesting that this reform will bring Catalonia closer to Europe. This is very far from being real. In 23 EU countries, university fees are very accessible or equal to 0 as opposed to what is happening in Spain. In France, a year of a Bachelor’s degree is around €180 and a year of Master's costs about €245", he said. According to Sindicat d'Estudiants in Catalonia, the new reform aims to bring the Spanish university system closer to the US model, rather than the European one.

In Catalonia, new 3-year Bachelor's degrees are to be introduced starting from 2016

UPF Vice Chancellor Mireia Trenchs said that her university is in favour of the introduction of new 3-year Bachelor's degrees. Starting from 2016, the two first 3-year new Bachelor's courses will be inaugurated: one in Global Studies and another in Bioinformatics (the latter in collaboration with other Catalan universities). "From now on, when a new Bachelor's programme is planned, a discussion will be held on whether to adopt a 3 or a 4-year option", she said. "With regard to the Bachelor's courses already existing, we have opened a phase of internal debate. In addition, we have initiated a discussion with the majority of Catalan universities in order to understand in which fields it is more appropriate to keep 4-year Bachelor's courses or shift to 3-year ones. In this regard, we still do not have a calendar but just some goals", she concluded.

Numerous higher education reforms have been passed in the last 14 years

According to Professor Sacristán, in the last 14 years – in Spain and Catalonia in particular – numerous higher education reforms have been passed. University studies' duration, degrees' names and contents, the university hiring system and university fees have been among the aspects mainly affected. The lack of a process of evaluation of these reforms has caused many oscillations and reformulations affecting the newest legislation. "The new reform – for example - opens now the possibility of 3-year Bachelor's courses but in Spain this was the standard until 2007, when 4-year Bachelor's degrees were introduced", UPC Professor Sacristán explained. "On the other hand, since 2012 a drastic contraction of higher education public funding has been registered and a simultaneous increase in university fees and requirements for obtaining a scholarship. In the future, this could bring about a contraction in the number of university students", she warned.

According to Borja Latorre, the present reform is strictly linked to the previous ones. "They are part of the same package of destruction of public education. This last piece of reform just stretches the consequences out even farther. For us, it is the worst counter-reform in the history of public education and will make university affordable only for wealthy families", he said.

In Catalonia there are 12 Universities (7 of them public). According to a report by the Spanish Ministry of Education, in 2012-2013 Catalan on-site Universities were hosting 191,515 undergraduate and Master's students, a 14.5% of the total student population in on-site universities in Spain (Catalonia counts for 15.9% of Spain's population).

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  • A student protest in the Universitat de Barcelona's Chancellor Office in February (by R. Garcia)

  • A faculty of the University of Barcelona during a student strike (by R. García)

  • A student protest in the Universitat de Barcelona's Chancellor Office in February (by R. Garcia)
  • A faculty of the University of Barcelona during a student strike (by R. García)