Yet another of these ranked listings of world universities has put those from Spain way down the list. This latest ranking, from the Times Higher Education website, has the University of Barcelona as the first Spanish educational institution to appear - in 142nd position. Ahead of Spain, apart from the UK, France and Germany are other Western European countries such as Switzerland, The Netherlands, Sweden, Ireland, Belgium, Finland, and Austria. Still, it could be worse. The Shanghai world university ratings put the first Spanish university (Madrid's Universidad Autonoma) in a dismal 201st on the list. In this ranking Spain doesn't lead the Spanish speaking world, both Mexico and Argentina have higher ranked institutions.
So does it matter? The immediate instinctive response is to say of course it should, a developed European country with 46 million inhabitants could reasonably expect to have at least one well regarded university. I ask the question of whether it matters partly because it doesn't seem to matter much to the Spanish. There are some who bemoan the lack of research investment, or the general lack of facilities in higher education in Spain, but not many. Education hardly seems to feature in the national political debate, and I'm not just talking about university education. A country where 30% of pupils have been abandoning education at the first possible opportunity should have something to worry about, but how much do you hear about this? It's far easier, especially if you live where I do, to find someone who thinks that the only educational problem the country has is to do with the language of instruction used in Cataluña.
I took a look at some of the responses to the Times rankings in both Público and Meneame. It's a bit depressing to read the comments. The worst case response is that which opts for the hyper-sensitive and defensive line that it's all part of the Great Anglo-Saxon Conspiracy. According to this theory of the world, any ranking of any kind which fails to put Spain in a high position is using a secret weighting factor devised by those evil anglo-saxons to specifically exclude the Spanish from the higher positions. Other commenters seem to think it just doesn't matter because Spain continues to produce substantial quantities of well educated graduates and doesn't go in for the elitist selection policies applied in other countries.
I have some sympathy with the last argument, but only some. The problem is that it converts the idea of higher education into that of universities being a variety of graduate factory. The missing factor with this argument, apart from the production line vision of what a university is for, is that universities are not just supposed to be about teaching. I've only ever been to Cambridge University as a tourist and there is much I dislike about the elitism of the UK's top universities. But I have to see the other side of the coin, I've been making a decent living for much of the last 20 years out of a software application which is a fairly direct descendant of work that was done at Cambridge. It's in innovation where Spain's universities really seem to be absent.
Everything has to be put into context, having Silicon Valley doesn't make a single significant difference to the daily lives of many people in the US, and the UK's possession of some very highly rated universities doesn't mean that it has any sort of stable economic model to offer a future for its graduates. But having a policy that encourages and promotes academic innovation has to have some sort of knock on effect for the rest of society. Spain doesn't have an economic model that values education despite the often extraordinary importance which is attached to academic qualifications as opposed to professional experience. That is a fundamental problem for times when economies that can't create employment for the future are going to end up adding more and more unwilling additions to the ranks of the insecure and badly paid.