Mon. Dec 9th, 2019

Let's not miss another opportunity: it's time to reform the Spanish university | Science

Recent news about researchers / university professors who have received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) They have been rejected by the National Agency for Quality Assessment and Accreditation (ANECA) In order to be full professors or university professors, they have encouraged a debate within the university community about the selection process for teachers and the role of ANECA within it. Among the opinions that are being expressed these days are voices that – like those of the previous rector of the Complutense University of Madrid, Carlos Andradas, and the rector of the University of Barcelona, ​​Joan Elias – advocate the elimination of ANECA accreditations and their regional equivalents for being a brake on the internationalization of universities and the recruitment of talent and others that, like those of the Minister of Science, Innovation and Universities, Pedro Duque, affirm that “The university system needs improvements”. Meanwhile, other university professors defend the current accreditation system by layer and sword and that those rejected by ANECA or flooded they have been with good reason to not comply with the teaching hours stipulated in the criteria of this agency (That until 2017 they were not totally clear about it and, everything must be said, today they contemplate exceptions for those exceptional researchers who have developed their career outside the Spanish university).

As a university professor, recipient of two ERC projects and attached (ANECA rejected my request to be a professor in 2011 claiming little teaching experience and supervising national and regional research projects and then accepting it 26 months later) I know well the idiosyncrasy of the Spanish university system, ANECA evaluations, which means getting projects ERC and what professors with research lines on the frontier of knowledge contribute to our universities. That is why it seemed appropriate to express my opinion on key issues that should be addressed in a deep reflection on how to reform our public university. I structure my intervention by launching a series of questions that we should all discuss, always bearing in mind that the objective of this debate should be to get our public university to fulfill its function in the best possible way.

Is it necessary to reform the Spanish university?

Undoubtedly. And not because he believes that our universities are bad or offer low quality degrees (quite the opposite, in view is all the talent we are forming in our classrooms and the prestige that our graduates have all over the world), but because I believe that There are many aspects of its operation that could be significantly improved. And by the way this reform should address once and for all chronic problems of our universities that, such as nepotism, inbreeding, bureaucracy and different aspects of its governance, pose a brake for its improvement and future development. Despite all the noise these days, many of the members of our university system seem to be very satisfied with the status quo current and pose a Numantine resistance to any type of change. I do not have space in this platform to address all the issues that should be addressed in the reform of our university system, so I focus the following questions on the role of ANECA and the need for our universities to have the best professionals, among the which include, for obvious but not apparent to everyone, researchers working at the frontier of knowledge.

Assume now that suddenly universities, making good use of their autonomy, will change an inertia of decades to hire the best for each place seems an illusion

Do we need ANECA?

Right now, yes. Hopefully it was not necessary to go through external accreditations to be a university professor, with the usual time and effort that this entails, but if we review the profiles of all the positions of professor and professor who have left in our universities we will see that in the vast majority of cases have been granted to internal candidates who, in addition, in not a few cases were not precisely the best or most qualified for the position. Assume now that suddenly universities, making good use of their autonomy, will change an inertia of decades to hire the best for each place seems an illusion. Let's not forget the real power of the departments within the university, an issue that is barely mentioned these days, since in most cases they decide de facto who occupies each position when proposing or appointing their court and endowing it – or not – of specific profiles (in most of the occasions adjusted to the profile of the candidate that is to be favored). And the situation is further aggravated in places of assistant and hired doctor in which the department itself can in many universities modulate the process including sections of "suitability." As long as the governance of our universities does not change, if the members of a specific department do not want the best candidates to occupy the places that appear in them, it will hardly happen, however much the rectors think otherwise. And eliminating the possibility that candidates have a minimum of teaching and research quality (objective of ANECA accreditations) would be a step backwards.

Of course this does not imply that ANECA should not be reformed. It is necessary to change its nineteenth administrative processes so that submitting an application takes a few hours (not a few or many weeks), make the accreditation criteria more flexible so that they do not exclude leading researchers who want to be professors and get the accreditation commissions They are made up of professors really trained to understand and judge objectively the curricula of the candidates, something that until now has not always happened.

Do we want teachers to carry out leading research?

For me the answer is obvious: yes. I cannot conceive that we dispense with this talent, which as they illustrate well some cases that we have known these days It is welcomed without qualms by our European neighbors. Many voices that defend the current system raise this issue as a simplification or false research-teaching dichotomy (good researcher = bad teacher, and vice versa) or affirm that professors with ERC projects disparage teaching work (if I am a representative example, anyone to check my teaching curriculum You can appreciate that this is not the case.) So false is to assume that by the mere fact of having an ERC project we become good teachers as all professors who do not research or do little (a number not negligible if we consider the sexenios as a reflection of the research carried out in the university) are good teachers. Many of the opinions that I have been able to read reflect a lack of knowledge of what professors contribute with projects such as CKD and a clear immobility on the part of many, who do not want the current system to change (justifying for it that everyone has to have a minimum of teaching hours to be a teacher). Are we better teachers for giving more class hours? I am not an expert in education, but in teaching, as in research, more quantity does not have to be equivalent to more quality. How many teachers with thousands of hours behind their backs give painful classes and / or do not supervise students, end of degree and master's degree projects (or do so very poorly)? How many teachers have been giving the same (outdated) slides for years or reading a textbook? Do all those who tear their clothes with news such as those that have emerged these days, value teachers who really innovate and deserve to improve their teaching performance for the benefit of our students?

The benefits in terms of knowledge generation, patents, technology-based companies and publications of professors with leading research lines are evident, but have we stopped to think about all the opportunities that our students have for having projects such as university those financed by the ERC?

To all the leaders of teaching I also ask you to think about our students. The benefits in terms of knowledge generation, patents, technology-based companies and publications of professors with leading research lines are evident, but have we stopped to think about all the opportunities that our students have for having projects such as university those financed by the ERC? In addition to incorporating the results of these projects in the classes we teach, our students will be able to carry out their internships, end of degree projects, master's thesis and doctoral thesis in leading projects and with resources, to experience first hand how to He does research on the frontier of knowledge, coming into contact with highly internationalized research groups and having multiple opportunities to collaborate with research groups around the world. Dispense with these projects and, above all, with the researchers behind them is simply and simply a great mistake that our students end up paying in the end.

Can we maintain in 2019 that everyone is capable of doing everything (teaching and research) equally?

Clearly not. Let us not forget that the university has two fundamental missions: to generate and transmit knowledge in order to serve the advancement of our society and the professional training of our students. This is what differentiates us from an academy and what makes universities institutions with a unique ability to contribute to our well-being and development. Now, to assume that every university professor investigates (or has the capacity and interest to investigate) for the mere fact of being so, is simply false. And who does not believe me to report on the percentage of teachers who does not have research sexennia, which in addition to me are an indicator of minimum in terms of research capacity (although this is another debate). If we agree that not everyone has the same capacity when teaching and researching, then we have to discuss the fact that there is a differentiated career in the university, with professors with a greater or lesser teaching load depending on their research and that both routes are properly recognized and allow the professional development of teachers who opt for any of them. And, of course, those professors who stand out in both facets, that there are also, and who want to teach more while carrying out intensive research work should also be able to do so and be recognized for it.

Together with this change in the teaching figures, which would imply a reform of the current legislation, we also have to fully assume that universities, making use of their autonomy and needs, directly hire researchers who dedicate themselves exclusively to research and participate in teaching tasks voluntarily. Many people tear their clothes before this possibility that, let's be clear, already contemplates our Law of Science, Technology and Innovation with the figure of the distinguished researcher and that is being used with great success by regional programs such as ICREA and Ikerbasque. Deep down I'm not saying anything new, these ideas were already on the table in the failed Statute of the Teaching and Research Staff under discussion when Ángel Gabilondo was Minister of Education and in the Madrid Higher Education Law, which did not get ahead either.

If a teacher is valid to be a professor at a university like Cambridge, why is it not to be in Spain?

Is it that the world's leading universities "pass" from teaching? Or is it that our ability is given by giving a certain number of class hours? I will not repeat myself in the aforementioned arguments, but if we want to improve our university, we must look in the mirror of the most advanced universities and try to imitate them in those aspects that contribute to improving ours, without losing their social function. And again we can not do without that talent that, being valid to be a professor in the best universities in the world cannot be in Spain due to the rigidity of current legislation.

As the director general of Universities and Higher Artistic Teaching of the Community of Madrid points out, José Manuel Torralba, in the next ten years between 30% and 50% of the permanent positions of the public university system and the Higher Council of Scientific Research will be renewed. Without a doubt, we enter a key moment and how the next generational change is going to happen will depend on the future of our university and the public R&D system during the next decades. The inertia we carry has led professors like Pablo Artal to say that in a few years "It will be impossible for universities to do top-level science". Is this the best for our university system? Do we want to continue as until now or has the time come to change this inertia we carry?

It is time to open a much-needed debate that leads to the reform of our public university system so that the best teachers and researchers have a place within it and can be an important engine that contributes to its improvement and development. Research talent willing to join our universities is not lacking, as well reflects the level of candidates who have not been able to apply for program contracts Ramón y Cajal Y Juan de la Cierva Incorporation, the main tools of return of researchers who are abroad. Together with other fundamental changes that our system needs, such as an increase in investment in R&D and a legislative reform that allows us to develop our activity in an agile and efficient way, this would not only prevent predictions such as Professor Artal's fulfillment. , but improve our university and that this contributes decisively to guarantee a better future for our children and grandchildren.

Fernando T. Maestre (@ftmaestre) is Professor of Ecology at the Rey Juan Carlos University (on leave) and distinguished researcher at the University of Alicante.

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