An Interview with Javier Vidal, Spanish Director General of Universities
By David Tobenkin

F. Javier Vidal García has been director general of universities for the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science since June 2006. He is a professor of methods of investigation and diagnosis in education at the University of León. He earlier served as vice rector of planning and evaluation at the University of León (2004–06) and also as director of the program of institutional quality (1996–04). As a researcher, he has concentrated his work in the area of study of higher education, especially evaluation of university research, institutional evaluation, and the relationship between training and employment. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Salamanca.

With respect to labor market demand and its relationship to university education in Spain, what are the key elements of the Ministry of Science and Education's strategy?
We've been researching and doing analysis on what happens in the labor market through studies and questionnaires, especially through the universities. We've detected some difficulties in the training of university students, namely the need of students for better practical training, more flexible degrees, and training more oriented to students' vocational needs and ability to adapt. To respond to that, we are realizing a reform that has as its base the reform of the Organic University Law that was passed this past spring and the recent publication of a new organization of teachings.

This new organization of teachings generated for Spain a restructuring of the design of degrees into a system that's very similar to that of the United States: a first degree of four years and then a second degree, a master's degree of one or two years, to be followed by a doctorate in some cases. Before in Spain, there were short three-year degrees and long degrees of five years. The new changes have the effect of giving the first university degree a sufficiently long duration that it is recognized and valued in the working world. In addition, this first degree requires students to get some professional experience upon finishing the degree. That is to say the degree itself has to allow students to participate in the labor market, not just to continue studying. We've also allowed the universities to take decisions about the definition of the degree and with respect to what's most important to future changes to it. Until now in Spain, it was a Napoleonic model in which the state had a high degree of intervention in determining degrees and we've reduced that intervention. Now there doesn't exist a predetermination by the state of how many degrees and of what type there should be and what contents they should have, but rather the universities themselves, year by year, with participation by professors, the greater society, professionals, and others can define the degrees. Additionally, we've incorporated the system of instruction of the master's degree, something that until now in Spain existed, but within a part of the educational system in which the government didn't participate. We've officially recognized those titles and we're going to incorporate the master's degree into the system. The master's will also have an important impact on the labor market because universities will certify a specialized training in a determined field that we know is greatly in demand in the labor market.

What are the steps taken by the Ministry to improve the university educational system so that students obtain good jobs after they graduate?
Until now in Spain, the creation of degrees has been based exclusively in the requirements of the contents that a degree had to have. That is to say, to obtain a physics degree, what you had to have was these elements and this knowledge. Now, the projects that the universities have to present go beyond the elements in the courses that a student has to study. The fundamental point is to design these programs along the lines of the abilities that the students have to have at the completion of their studies. Of course, the knowledge is a part of these abilities and is the base of what the students should have done by the end of their studies. But we've introduced, as I said, the idea that the program isn't just a program of knowledge that you should have, but, instead, a reflection of what you should have done. We think by doing that we've introduced an important element to improve careers.

In addition, universities are now required to make very explicit the practical training that students must have. We understand that the theoretical is something that is reasonable also but that we need to insist more on practical training. We've also sent another important message, which is that the programs should include in whatever way possible external practice in professional environments in the last years of the course. Some already had this included, such as education and health, but we think that applying this to other courses could greatly improve the training provided to students. Also, in all this, we have an enormous interest in stimulating the mobility of the students, not just between jobs, but also between different institutions.

We believe this can guarantee for students their own ability to move around and incorporate themselves into new systems and acquire knowledge of new realities, knowledge of new professors, new classmates, and, especially, mobility in the European arena. We believe this will open new possibilities new job opportunities and knowledge for students.

What are the largest challenges for the Spanish university system today?
First is a good reform of the teaching system, which we've now begun. The reality is that the Spanish universities already have worked very hard and have experimented with pilot and experimental programs with great success. And in that sense I have a great confidence of our ability to be successful. In additional, we have other great themes in the university area that have to do with the financing, especially of the public sector, which is something that is being analyzed and that has to be reviewed by the universities themselves and the government of Spain. Also, we are examining other areas of the private sector that can cooperate in the funding of higher education.

Another important theme is that of grants and help to students for studies. We began last year two important practices in the area of grants: one is that study grants are a universal right such that all who fulfill certain requirements have the right to a grant, and there is a need for the state to guarantee this help. We've also started a system of loans for students that allow financing at zero interest and to delay repayment for 15 years. We think these types of grants and assistance need to increase more. We have to allow many students to have some type of assistance so that they can participate in higher education.

Another important element is the internationalization of the system. Spain is a country that is attractive for foreign students, in some ways. For example, we are the country that receives the most Erasmus participants in Europe. We like that dimension a great deal and would like to not only encourage our students to spend some of their education outside of Spain, but also to make our universities attractive not just for participants in the Erasmus program, but also students who want to study their master's or graduate programs in our country.

The last important challenge is contributing to a better combination between flexibility of universities to realize their functions with better awareness of their impact on society, especially with respect to public funds. This is not just a goal of inspection but rather something that is more important, which is to relay to society what is occurring in each of the universities. That is especially so with respect to allowing society and students to realize to which institution they should turn to find what they are looking for. We don't believe in a system in which certain universities are good or bad, but rather we want our universities to be able to diversify themselves so that all have the possibility of offering something good, indeed excellent, in a determined field. And that's what we want society to know. And that's one of the most important challenges we have.

In general terms, please discuss the future of higher education in Spain?
What we want is for our universities to be competitive, to contribute to social cohesion, to be more attractive to Spanish and foreign students, and for the system to have more dynamism than it has had in the area of organized instruction. Our universities are very dynamic in many fields, such as research, international relations, and with respect to our courses—we want to incorporate this dynamism into teaching, in conjunction with the university taking a more important part in designing organized instruction. The model that we've created is more adaptive to changing needs. We want whatever decision we take today to be capable of being modified each year, allowing us to improve it easily, something that the structure that existed prior to our new reforms hasn't allowed. Finally, perhaps the most important element is to allow forms of coordination between all the social actors that hasn't previously existed with respect to the Spanish government, educational administrators of the autonomous regions of Spain, universities, businesses, and society. We think we've opened the possibility of establishing cooperation between all of these that will permit them to respond to future needs that arise in a much more rapid fashion.

David Tobenkin

David Tobenkin is a freelance writer in Chevy Chase, Maryland.