A life between two higher education systems

Posted: July 8, 2015 at 10:22 am

19275321848_d8510eee67_bCongratulations to the Spanish Fulbright Association on its 25th anniversary and a heartfelt thank you for inviting me to join in the celebrations with a lecture in Madrid’s Casa América last week. Thanks to the Fulbright program I have had the unique opportunity to be a student, a professor and an administrator in Europe and in the U.S. so I thought it would make sense to focus on that experience for the occasion.

Here are some of my talking points:

  • As envisioned by Senator Fulbright himself, academic exchange continues to be one of the most effective tools for public diplomacy, mutual understanding and peace. Since it was established in 1946, the Fulbright Scholarship has helped about 123,000 American scholars to study and teach abroad and about 203,000 scholars from elsewhere to do the same in the U.S.
  • Senator Fulbright once said, “In the long course of history, having people who understand your thought is much greater security than another submarine.” Today’s Fulbright budget is about $240 million (plus another $90 million invested by partnering countries). The cost of a modern submarine would fund about 10 years of Fulbright exchanges at today’s levels.
  • The Spanish Fulbright Association, made up mostly of Spanish Fulbright returnees, is one of the most effective diplomatic tools the U.S. has in Spain and it costs the U.S. nothing. The Spanish Fulbright Association was instrumental in advocating for last year’s Prince of Asturias Prize for International Cooperation to be awarded to the Fulbright program and ensuring that the first act of the new King, Philip VI, in the United States would be a visit to Fulbright administrator Institute of International Education’s headquarters in New York City.
  • Scholarly exchanges between Spain and the U.S. will be critical to further advance the competitiveness of Spain’s universities and the innovation capacity of the entire country. As I discussed in this op-ed in El País last year, Israel, which is six times smaller than Spain, has won four times as many Nobel Prizes in scientific disciplines. One of the Spanish winners (Severo Ochoa) and the majority of Israel’s had strong ties with American institutions or had done their work in the U.S. while contributing greatly to research at home.
  • Spanish higher education has made remarkable progress in terms of access. In just one generation, tertiary education participation has gone from 18 percent (less than half of America’s 40 percent) to 38 percent (on par with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average of 39 percent and near America’s 43 percent).
  • The challenge for Spanish higher education now is to try to place a few institutions among the best in the world in terms of research without sacrificing its success in terms of access. Whereas the U.S. accounts for about half of the world’s top 200 research universities, Spain places none.
  • In addition to stronger connectivity with the best research centers in the world (greatly facilitated by programs such as Fulbright, because most of those centers are in the U.S.), at least two factors will need to be addressed in Spain: funding and governance.
  • Spain spends about $13,000 per university student according to OECD data. The average rich country spends $14,000 and the U.S. spends $26,000 (the highest in the world). Interestingly, the public investment in higher education in Spain and the U.S. are not that different. Spain’s taxpayers invest about 1 percent of Gross Domestic Product and Americans 0.9 percent. Yet while private sources in Spain dedicate only 0.3 percent of GDP to higher education, American private sources spend 1.8 percent of GDP (twice as much as public sources). Given current budgetary constraints, chances are that Spain will need to figure out ways to channel more private funding into universities.
  • The governance limitations in Spain have been discussed extensively. It makes no sense that presidents and deans continue to be elected via internal elections in which faculty, staff and even students vote while independent boards have virtually no power to hold universities accountable. Because of this lack of external accountability, universities are over-regulated and lack the degrees of freedom necessary to differentiate themselves and achieve excellence.

Write to Ángel Cabrera at president@gmu.edu

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