Upon entering the Faculty of Philology at the Complutense University of Madrid, the Secretary General for Universities, José Manuel Pingarrón, comes across a huge red banner expressly addressed to his boss: “No to the royal decree of Castells“, whom a group of students accuses of making the student workforce precarious.
The reason is the so-called dual mention, which the ministry plans to introduce soon to bring the university closer to companies and that a good part of the teaching offer in the master’s degrees has this practical component. Pingarrón, far from being intimidated by the poster, smiles, holds the folder between his legs and says: “I’m going to take a picture of him”. It is not difficult to foreshadow which WhatsApp the image may be directed to!
This next Royal Decree on the Organization of University Teaching is the first in a series of legislative changes that intend to shake the dust off the mortarboards, and that will reach their zenith with the new law of organization of the university system or LOSU, whose preliminary draft is scheduled for fall.
But for now Pingarrón, Professor of Analytical Chemistry at this same university, he has returned to Ciudad Universitaria to participate in a international conference on the future of the humanities, at which point he is approached by El Confidencial for this interview.
QUESTION. What do you want with this new law?
ANSWER. It is a very basic law, we want it to allow universities, within common denominational limits, to develop as far as they can. Also in what has to do with research and knowledge transfer, reduce the barriers that hinder this transfer. This also has to do with the reform of the Law of Science and for that we are coordinating with them.
Q. Most of the research in Spain is done in the universities, but are you satisfied with it, can it be improved or is it a bit burdened by rigidity and bureaucracy?
R. Spanish research systems are comparable to those of the rest of Europe, but it is true that the type of legislation we have, which comes from the one that was established during the crisis, is very restrictive. In the United States, for example, they give you a project, they give you a visa and you spend according to that visa. Of course, as soon as they look at the expenses and you have done it wrong, you go to jail. That is, what responsibility there is always. Here it is true that we have a series of obstacles such as prior intervention and prior inspection that makes it quite difficult.
What are we trying? Remove any of those barriers, as long as there is a control because this is public money and there has to be. And accountability and transparency. But, as long as that happens, we will try to remove all the barriers that we can.
Q. Are you concerned about employability?
A. Yes, of course.
Q. How are you going to improve these rates and reduce the abundance of unemployed graduates?
R. Well, there I have to say that that is a mantra. According to data from the National Institute of Statistics, that is, they are not spurious data, in the survey carried out on the cohort of university graduates for the 2014-15 academic year, the unemployment rate of university graduates in 2019 is 8% for that cohort. With those who have a master’s degree, it is less than 7%. With those with higher FP it is 12.5% and with those with medium grade FP it is 16%. And I don’t even tell you those who don’t have studies.
“That of the graduates of unemployment a mantra, another thing is what they work or their salary”
Having a university degree and having a master’s degree gives a certain guarantee of employability, there is not a huge cohort of unemployed graduates. The level is much lower than with other types of formations. Another thing is what they work for and what is the salary they have. However, here two things must be taken into account: degrees and masters are made by universities, that is, they have to think about which ones they propose to improve employability, which is a key factor, but also to train critical citizens or maintain the cultural level. Universities have to know what they want, because a very nice degree or master’s degree can be proposed, but it does not have an adequate study on professional opportunities.
P. But if we talk about improving employability and it turns out that the data is not so bad, where is the problem, where can you attack?
A. Right now, fundamentally, the challenge is in permanent training, what is called ‘upskilling’ and ‘reskilling’. After finishing a degree, you can find any job, but it is practically impossible that at some point you do not have to re-qualify. That kind of education is what I think will shape the future.
Q. That is, are we going to a scenario in which one will study a career to start and at some point in our working life it will be necessary to return to university?
A. Maybe not, for sure. Here, online teaching will be essential, because if you are working and have a family, you will not be coming to the university at 12 in the morning, you cannot. For these people to re-qualify, it will be key to be able to do it in a non-face-to-face way.
Q. When Castells, who has been in Berkeley for many years, was appointed minister, many interpreted it as seeking to Americanize the Spanish university and to introduce ideas of the American model to the Spanish university. Is there any of this?
A. No, no, no. He is aware and I am aware that the American model has good things and very bad things. I have been a visiting professor at Cornell for several years, and when I was there, the one who was the dean told a man who had been nominated for the Nobel three times that he was putting little money into college, and that the following month he would have to vacate two laboratories and, if things had not changed within three months, they would retire him. It is a brutal level of competitiveness: people do not have vacations, they sleep in laboratories, tuition costs $ 70,000 … That is inexorable, it can only be in the United States because it is not like that even in England. It would be impossible.
P. Lately many new ‘universities’ are appearing, and I say this in quotation marks because a recent study asked precisely what can we call university. Does that concern you?
R. We are so concerned that we are about to issue a royal decree for the creation and recognition of universities, both public and private. That makes it clear what are the requirements, which will be harder than the current ones, for a teaching institution to be called a university. It must have a minimum number of degrees, a minimum number of masters, a doctorate, a minimum research work … In short, a sufficient critical mass.
“We receive many requests from spurious universities that do not even reach the minimum”
Q. And how would it affect those that already exist?
A. They would have five years to adjust. In any case, the vast majority meet the requirements, it would be only a few. The issue is that we are receiving many requests from new universities that are spurious requests, which do not even reach the minimum for something to be called a university, and that is a brake on those requests from ending.
Q. Is the university too old? There are templates of teachers with an average age of 60 years.
A. Without a doubt. One of the big problems we have is the aging of the templates. Currently, you stabilize when you are 40 years old, that is outrageous. Therefore, one of the fundamental objectives of the new law is to change the academic career to rejuvenate the staff and that the people who enter stabilize at six years of age, but not much more!
P. And in what way will that be articulated?
A. For example, making it necessary to be a doctor and not have any accreditation to enter. Leave the universities they hire, give people six years to develop their career and, then yes, accredit themselves to be permanent. It is fundamental, because in the Spanish university there are going to be thousands of retirements in the coming years.