[In case you’re wondering, yes, two posts today – I haven’t been writing much recently and the ideas pile up…]

I’m going to refer here again to the 84-page report that a committee of professors submitted last 15 February to Minister Wert, for the reform of the public Spanish university system. It’s easy to find articles criticising the content of the report point by point, although the report itself is no longer available from the Ministry’s website. I don’t know whether this has to do with the news three days ago that a collective calling itself ‘La Uni en la Calle’, formed by seven universities from Madrid, has demanded that it be withdrawn because it is anti-constitutional (they’re planning to present a counter-report today, 9 March).

Many things, as I have already noted, are questionable in that report but I want to focus on an aspect that perplexes me: the lack of references to the local roots of the Spanish university. What I mean is this: both the very many international systems for rating universities and the national (Spanish and Catalan) committees, reports, etc. to try to improve them seem to work on the basis that universities form a kind of transnational network, or system, which remains untouched by local realities. Let see if I can explain myself better: they are assumed to function like, say, Catholic monasteries which can follow the same monastic rule no matter whether they are in France or in Perú. The comparison is not that far-fetched since universities are technically the descendants of monastic life, to the point that we are call ‘professors’, that is to say, ‘persons who profess’ … a faith. I could crack a few bad jokes about whether we behave like nuns or monks, but I’ll leave them aside, as I’m trying to make a serious point here.

Somehow monasteries can operate by ignoring the precise nation where they are (well, at their own risk, look at the excellent French movie Des hommes et des dieux (2010) for an extreme example of the horrors that can happen when you ignore the culture surrounding you). Universities, though, are not monasteries and do depend on their surrounding environment much more than the authorities running them want to assume. It is true that we work forming international networks of contacts, collaborations and conferences, but we do have roots, and I simply don’t see them in the report or anywhere else in university policies. I’ll be more specific by referring to the matter of teacher and student mobility (or lack thereof).

The report insists again and again that Spain has too many public universities: 50. It also insists that teachers’ and students’ mobility should increase and that Spain should be an only university district, with a gradual transformation of these 50 multi-department universities into centres specialising in certain areas and ranking hierarchically. This is the Anglo-American model: Harvard and Yale, Oxford and Cambridge are at the pinnacle of the whole university structure, which has an enormous degree of mobility because the United States and the United Kingdom are much richer (they can offer grants, there are more families that can afford their children’s studying away from home). Also, in these countries, unlike ours, family and local ties are much looser and people think nothing of leaving home at 18 never to return (or just to meet their family now and then).

This is not our case at all. Of course, students from rural areas have no option but leave home to attend university but I know that many in UAB stay on or close to campus from Monday to Thursday and spend the weekend at home. Also, many travel for hours every day because they cannot afford living away from home. The percentage of middle- and upper-class families who can send their children to a university elsewhere is smaller in Spain than in Anglo-American countries and this explains the high number of universities, too: someone made the decision that maintaining 50 local universities made more sense given our local reality than financing the mobility of so many working-class or low-middle-class students.

Teachers themselves are subject to local lifestyles. I know quite a few cases in which Spanish teachers have spent years in universities far from home doing all they could to return close to their families and friends, sometimes even splitting their working week between places hundreds of kilometres away. We also have, by the way, a private life: we marry, have children, have elderly parents to take care of, and that with little help from the state. If you’re a woman in the academic profession getting tenured and the matter of mobility are particularly hard to cope with: preparation for tenure usually takes up the crucial years in which a female teacher may decide to become a mother. Not quite the moment to leave your local roots, and much less grandparents whose help might be indispensable. Moving away when you hit fifty because of a promotion to full professor may well coincide with those grandparents’ needing care you cannot leave to others. Not to mention the fact that for both men and women combining their own mobility with that of their spouses and children is quite a nightmare today and much more so in Spain, given our poor social help system.

Quite absurdly, the report calls for a general sort of mobility that no other profession has in Spain, without ever wondering why this is so and how it connects with endogamy (obviously… people try to stay close home, small universities try to keep their local talent). Universities, I’ll insist, are not culturally transparent and I think it’s about time we look at our roots to understand who we are, what needs we service and how we can serve those needs even better and not some odd universalist notion of what a university should be. Just for you to understand the kind of ivory tower in which the report was written, their authors seem to care much more about the lack of Spanish Nobel Prizes in science since Ramón y Cajal than about how to guarantee the very survival of the Spanish university.

PD: See here an interesting interview about the mobility of highly skilled people in academic posirtions…: