Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Does It Matter If Spain's Universities Aren't Amongst The Best?

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.


Jeremy Holland said...

"having Silicon Valley doesn't make a single significant difference to the daily lives of many people in the US..." I dunno Graeme. Google, Xerox, HP, INTEL Oracle, Sun. All born out of Silicon Valley. They hire quite a few people not to mention their technology is used by a wide swath of the US

Graeme said...

The point I was seeking to make with this was that having centres of excellence or innovation doesn't in itself mean that the rest of the economy falls into line. The gurus of the digital economy talk at times as if Silicon Valley was the US economy. There are undoubtedly important companies there, but the key issue is whether it just becomes an island of prosperity in the midst of an economy that is slowly being deskilled.

On the employment side a lot of the manufacturing is already done offshore and many of the new web based companies don't create that many jobs. As we are slowly finding out, several of the highly profitable new giants are as creative in avoiding taxes as their more traditional predecessors which further reduces their contribution. If a country like Spain puts effort into emulating that sort of model then how much benefit would it really bring?

Jeremy Holland said...

You're muddling issues. Off-shoring / employment is economic / political, not educational. Countries can have a heavy corporate influence and not export jobs. Holland had 4% unemployment. For all that ails the US, it's still half of Spain's. Imagine if there was strong unions.

You do use Google, Intel, etc, don't you? They've benefited your life, right? Do you think they would've been created had it not been for Stanford? Bringing together like minded, talented people stimulates the creative process. this is a fact. It doesn't have to be economic or private schools. Berkley is synonymous with the sixties culture and it's a state school. I'm sure Oxford and Cambridge have contributed more than a software program that you use.

Are the Spanish less talented than Americans? No. Is the natural talent tapped to create jobs, industry, entertainment? No. That's why it's in the state it's in. Would the country have benefited from having places that encouraged people to move and engage in rigorous discussions help? Yes.

To use a football analogy, people would rather learn at Barça's masia than Getafe's or even Madrid's academy.

Graeme said...

I don't know about muddling issues Jeremy, but I'm certainly mixing them and I think there are good reasons for doing so. You can't look at the educational question in isolation. Let's take another example - the UK. Before the financial crash there were boasts about how the City of London was attracting the best talent from the UK's universities. What a waste of talent, was my reaction to that. These people could have been doing something useful with their lives and instead they ended up playing casino with other people's lives and money. That's why the economic model is important, you can have dozens of wonderful educational institutions but it doesn't mean that you will get a great or sustainable economy as a result.

So apply that to Spain's economic model and maybe substitute construction for financial speculation "services" and you could have the same problem even if Spain had 10 universities in the top 100. I think its great if people come out of the educational system with innovative ideas, but the problem then can be finding anyone prepared to listen to them.

Jeremy Holland said...

I don't doubt the economic model is important after people graduate.

The analogy between financial services and construction is a bit off. most people effected by market crashes have portfolios and made their money back. houses not so much. that's why the economy is still in the tank. and for all the evils of financing, it does extend credit if regulated correctly which leads to more business. without venture capital, there's no google. with houses maybe you can add to the number of short term rentals?

The question as I understood your post was: does factory mentality take better advantage of a country's talent ie Spain or one that may be more elitist for lack of a better word is US? and yes you can look at it in isolation.

rather than focus on what's happened the last ten years look at the last sixty. from the end of world war II until the end of the seventies, the US had an upper tax rate of 70%, strong unions, and what was at the time a relatively equal society in terms of income (let's not get sidetracked on civil rights). Yet the universities still followed the current model and produced people who would impact lives (see names above plus scientists who took men to the moon, and numerous film directors). since that time inequality's risen but it was political and economic not the type of university system. if you want a better understanding of this process in the states, I suggest a book called "winner takes all politics."

The problem with Spain's educational system is that it does nothing to foster kids who could go on to be the next Bill Gates, Noam Chomsky,Steve Jobs, etc. In fact it discourages this. Think about it. Chupa-chups and Zara is Spain's contribution to the global economy of the last sixty years. Is it that the Spanish are lazy and stupid? I don't think so. It must therefore be the education. And I extend this to the parents who encourage their children to find the safest job, not the most rewarding or that takes use of their talents.

But what type of system would you suggest? Surely, you're not defending the status quo.

Graeme said...

No, I'm certainly not defending the status quo. That's why I'm critical in my post of the lack of any debate or concern about education in Spain. My intention was to provoke precisely the sort of discussion we're having, to get at what makes a difference. I don't agree with the idea of universities as graduate factories, it has to be about more than that - but a society that really believes in making the most of its talent doesn't have elitism either. Nor am I much of a fan of the point of view that values entrepreneurial skills above all other applications of creativity.

I'm not trying to establish a direct analogy between construction and financial services, it's just that they are major economic activities in their respective countries, and neither really demands an exceptionally well educated workforce. My point here was simply to say that if we're going to invest in the education then we should also be investing in the activities where that education can be put to good use.

Anonymous said...

Well, I do think it matters.
While I support the Spanish "education for all" policy , i.e. relatively low fees for higher education , etc. We should be aspiring to get better therefore, we should be working on getting better ratings.
Of course we can criticise the ratings, some of the things valued are not that significant, but it is still a guide to what we should be. And it is a fairly objective one.
As a Spanish graduate I had no problem working in the UK and other european countries. So it is not that I do not have the general knowledge to do my work , it is more complicated.
I wasn't taught how to write essays, I was not taught anything about the beaurocracy or legal subtilities of my job, I was not taught to work as a team, I was not taught anything about the economic impact of my job.
All those things I had to learn, and it has been fine. But Spanish Universities should modernize and tackle these issues.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree about Spain not supporting the next Steve Jobs...
When I applied to do a PhD in Spain ( after winning a research prize with my first attempt at research), the answer was: your two colleagues asked first, and I cannot take you on. My two colleagues happened to go with the boss to football matches together... 5 years down the line, they have both dropped from the PHd studies, and I'm doing a Phd in another country on a top 50 institution...

Graeme said...

Having some of your best talent leave the country because of favouritism or lack of research opportunities is a bit suicidal. Regardless of whether they're going to be the next Steve Jobs, or someone who dedicates themselves to finding a cure for the forgotten diseases that kill poor people, or a whole range of other possibilities.

Jeremy Holland said...

I agree with anonymous education should be available to all and not according to economic means. I have to admit I was always a big fan of the UK system until the recent student fees. The possibility of earning a degree without going into ten of thousands of dollars in debt. welcome to the new era of class warfare where the rich are kicking the poor's ass

Graeme said...

Tell me about it. I think I only owed about 200 pounds when I finished my degree in the UK. Of course that was back in the Middle Ages before student loans when 200 pounds was a lot of money!

Anonymous said...

The fees problem in the Uk is a disgrace. So now that the middle classes can afford some good schooling for their kids, we are going to make it even more difficult, so they do not overtake the rich. Less places at uni. and higher fees. But there will always be a place for the rich ones ( see Gadaffi's son getting a phd at UCL...).
Now, in Spain this is also happening, all these new private universities where you pay and get a degree (of course there might be exceptions) while the rest work hard in overcrowded, badly resourced state run universities..

Graeme said...

Although there is much more debate in the UK about education than I've seen in Spain, the sad reality is that much of the policy changes that result from this are designed to ensure that the middle class get what they want without making it look too obvious that the rest are just being forgotten.