Type:Federations Magazine Article
Democracy, Decentralization Arrive on Campus BY Francisco Michavila AND Jorge Martínez
The current organization of the Spanish state is
based on the Constitution of 1978 that established
the country as a parliamentary monarchy. Its
territory is politically and administratively divided
into municipalities, provinces and Autonomous
Communities. The latter are the equivalent of states
or provinces in a federal system.
Democracy returned to Spain with the first democratic elections
after General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. In 1977, a
Parliament was elected, 41 years after the last elections. With this
election began the period known as the Transition, the highlight
of which was the writing of a new Constitution, passed in 1978.
That was the starting point for the current democratic period.
This Constitution permitted the creation of Autonomous
Communities as well as the devolution and decentralization of
certain areas of government, while others remain
under the federal (known in Spain as the State or
central) government. In the case of higher education,
the transfer of responsibilities took place
between 1985 and 1996.
The Spanish university system is made up of 73
institutions, of which 50 are public, 16 are private,
and seven are run by the Catholic Church. A smaller
sector in post-secondary education includes professional and
technical schools as well as arts, language and sports institutions.
Ninety per cent of undergraduate students and 95 per
cent of those doing doctoral studies enrol in public institutions,
mostly universities, which also play a major role in the field of
research as they employ 40 per cent of all researchers in the
country. A smaller sector in post-secondary education includes
professional and technical schools as well as arts, language and
University Autonomy vs. Madrid
Spain’s 1978 Constitution established academic freedom and
university autonomy, which are deeply rooted within the country’s
tradition despite the 40-year Franco dictatorship – or
perhaps because of it. University autonomy covers academic,
financial and management matters.
Since 1983, when the Law for University Reform was passed,
Spanish universities have undergone very important changes
affecting their governance, as well as their coordination and
organization as part of a post-secondary system. Further
reforms were undertaken in 2001 and 2007, which changed the
functions and jurisdictions of the
main actors in university politics,
while maintaining the importance
of the triad of central government,
Autonomous Communities and
The central government, through
its Ministry of Education and
Science, is responsible for formulating general guidelines for
university policy. The ministry plays several key roles, including:
setting university entry requirements; developing and
managing the system for awarding scholarships and grants;
designing and managing innovation and quality policy; and the
validation of degrees. Two public universities also fall directly
under central government jurisdiction.
The Autonomous Communities’ jurisdiction covers the
• administration and regulation of the university system within their territories; programming the financing and services of universities within
• complementing the central government scholarship and grant
system if they so choose;
• deciding whether to create or abolish universities within their
• exercising administrative jurisdiction over the universities in
Move Toward Democratization
The General Conference on University Policy was created for the
coordination, agreement and cooperation of the different parties
within the system with regard to general higher education policy.
The universities’ internal administration is regulated by a
legal framework that sets out basic minimum structures and
that distinguishes between collegiate and individual bodies.
Starting with the law of 1983, attempts were made to modernize
university administration, open it up to society and
democratize it. The downside has been that the new model
decreases the flexibility and agility of university decision-making.
The quality assurance system has a national agency at its
core in charge of evaluation, certification and accreditation, the
National Agency for Quality Evaluation and Accreditation
(aneca). There are eight regional agencies that work alongside
aneca, each of which has some activities in common, including
Creation of the European Higher Education Area and the
subsequent reform of the Spanish university system have
delayed implementation of accreditation models because
reform of the current degree system, and that of the traditional
credit system, was considered more urgent. Further work is
necessary to tighten coordination among agencies and to
establish shared basic criteria.
Most Financing is Local
The major sources of income of public universities are public
funds (74%) plus tuition fees or course fees, (13%), with the rest
coming from such sources as services rendered and wealth
produced by its property and assets.
As universities increasingly have come under the jurisdiction
of Autonomous Communities, so has their financing. The
Communities are the ones who decide on amounts assigned to
each institution. The exception to this model is the constitutional
mandate given exclusively to Madrid to safeguard equity
in all of Spain through a system of scholarships and grants.
There are as many models of financing as there are
Autonomous Communities. They are as diverse as the possibilities
for combining different criteria for the allocation of
resources and mechanisms for their distribution.
The second major source of income – tuition fees and course
fees – is set by the administration, making it illegal for universities
to go over the upper limits that have been set. Today, they
are far below the real costs of educating students, which makes
them similar to those of the surrounding European area.
Since the adoption of the 1978 constitution, Spain has been
quite successful in the democratization and decentralization
of its post-secondary education system. One of its biggest
challenges now is to improve co-ordination, co-operation and
quality control. This will help ensure a greater diversity of institutions.