With the aim of implementing the guidelines set out in the Bologna Declaration, which will create a Common European Space in Higher Education, a commission of experts is debating how to adapt the Spanish University system for the future. This space seeks to harmonise both the duration and typology of studies, as well as introducing a standardised credit system within the European Union.
An inefficient model?
In view of the current labyrinth of study programmes, a legacy from consecutive education reforms, which all coexist in a polyvalent manner, it seems obvious that this umpteenth reform is necessary. However, it fails to address one of the main complaints of the student body: the lack of practical classes, or, in other words, the opportunity to apply acquired knowledge to the labour market.
Soledad, a graduate in Special Education asserts “I would have prefered that my studies last one year longer if the year had been dedicated to practical experience.” Alberto is even more categorical, “this is my final year reading law and I still don’t know what a courtroom looks like on the inside”.
This phenomenon is the most evident in humanities, but not exclusively. Diego, an Industrial Engineering student, sums it up this way “Practical experience? It exists but we do not have even 10% of what is necessary.”
The excessively academic nature of classes is closely linked to the lack of interaction between professors and students. More often than not, “professors arrive, hardly allow for questions, give their lecture and go”, says David, a student of English Philology. This lack of communication between professors and students has its origins in the overcrowding of universities during the 1980s. Well into the 90s, it was common to find classes with 200 students or more, even sat in corridors. It is understandable that interaction, or the organisation of practical lessons, with such a number of students created a logistical dilemma back then. However, years later, the birth-rate, and the corresponding number of students, has decreased. For example, the University of Seville has gone from having more than 75,000 students 10 years ago to 63, 000 in the last academic year.
Where are we heading?
We need to rethink the type of classes we would like our universities to provide. Class numbers are on the decrease, so this is the perfect moment to drop lectures forever in favour of encouraging classes where student participation is central. It could be difficult; students are accustomed to the old system and limit themselves to just passing exams. It is not strange that they aren’t willing to take part when they come across a professor who designs classes that encourage participation.
It is precisely for this reason that an integral performance plan is needed, one that entirely remodels the way in which we have perceived University until now. A system based on continuous assessment (not simply on final exams) and practical work, whether on an individual or group level. A programme which includes agreements with the private sector so that students coming to the end of their studies can finish them with internships in companies and, if possible, carried out during the summer months. In short, making a link between the university and the labour market. Something which is impossible if just 4.3% of GDP is allocated to education and if students have to focus almost exclusively on memorisation in order to pass exams.
The UK: the exception to the rule
Generally speaking, the situation in the rest of the European Union is not much different to the Spanish panorama. Overcrowding in French classrooms gives rise to a serious lack of interaction and consequently, little practical focus. In Italy universities are more focused on the academic than the practical and the feeling of division between the university and the labour market is very present amongst students. In Germany it very much depends on the University, given that the system can vary according to the region. The general feeling, however, is that universities should focus more on the practical side. At the present time, a large majority of the Landers (German federal states) are reforming their study programmes, which could open doors to an increase in practical experience. The United Kingdom seems to be the exception to the rule. Classrooms tend to have fewer students, allowing its system a more practical and interactive focus, whether on an individual or group level. However, this system also has its weak points: studying at British Universities is markedly more expensive than at those in Continental Europe.
The following people have collaborated on this article: from Brussels, Babieche Gielen and Vanessa Witkowski; from Berlín, Rahel Weingärtner; from Budapest, Jaradi Judit; from Prague, Andrea Fialková and from Florence, Letizia Gambini.