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President's Blog

A Perfect Mess

Should the goal of a university system be to provide a reasonable, uniform level of quality for all students, or to let universities pursue their own path, knowing that some students will have access to world-class excellence while others will be stuck with subpar education?

Explicitly or not, the Spanish system seems to pursue the former, while the American system may be closer to the latter.

While in Spain for the board meeting of the Bankinter Innovation Foundation, I was invited to visit Universitat de Lleida, Spain, by Board chairman Delfi Robinat. The discussion with the board, the  leadership team and president Roberto Fernández (who was recently elected leader of the association of Spanish university presidents) about the structural differences between American and Spanish universities and the advantages and disadvantages of each was truly insightful. (My interview with local newspaper Segre is available here in Catalan).

President Fernández has argued that Spain should be more concerned about the average quality of its universities than about the fact that none of them rank among the top 100 or 200 in the world (as per the Academic Ranking of World Universities). What matters, in his view, is that every student in Spain has access to a good quality, affordable education regardless of geographical location. On that account, Spain has done rather well.

The American system of higher education values diversity over uniformity. An excellent book by Stanford professor David Labaree, cleverly describes its genesis and evolution as a “Perfect Mess”. It admittedly does not offer comparable quality to all students but it has produced the largest number of the best universities in the world. It has created real problems in terms of access and affordability, but it has poured much more money into its universities than virtually any other system.

Unlike American universities, where independent boards hold the ultimate authority over all matters, including most importantly the hiring and firing of the president, in Spain it is the faculty (with minority votes from staff and students) who elect the presidents and deans. Because Spanish boards are mostly advisory, the only form of control tax payers retain is a rather heavy set regulations.

Spanish law and regulation set uniform tuition, student selection processes, faculty recruitment, tenure and promotion mechanisms, faculty and staff pay, and, to a great extent, curricular structure for all universities. Because the president does not appoint deans, it can be the case that a university’s administration holds contradictory visions about the future. Yet, in practical terms, the degrees of freedom they have to differentiate themselves and compete are tightly constrained.

American universities, on the contrary, compete for virtually everything. We have much greater autonomy to admit students, to structure curriculum, to hire, promote and grant tenure to professors, to pay faculty and staff. Presidents are held accountable by external boards but are granted great autonomy to appoint deans, set up and execute strategy.

The Spanish system delivers robust, uniform quality at a comparative low cost, but is unlikely to produce elite players. The American system delivers a broader range of quality at a much higher cost for families and tax payers, but produces some of the best universities in the world.