President's Blog

A tale of two systems

The rector of Spain’s Universidad Pontificia de Comillas, a selective Jesuit university with some of the country’s most reputed programs in business, law and industrial engineering, invited me this week to speak to his administration about the differences and similarities between the American and Spanish systems of higher ed, given that I have studied, taught and held leadership positions in both systems.  One of the most striking differences that I have seen and that centered a big part of our discussion is funding.

According to the OECD, Spain spends $13,400 per university student, which is about the OECD average.  In comparison, the U.S. spends a whopping $25,600, the world’s highest, and almost twice as much as the average rich country.  For that money, the U.S. gets about half of the top universities in the world–more than anyone else–even though, when normalized by population, the U.S. comes in 9th, with countries like Switzerland, Denmark or Sweden doing better as I have explained here before.

Where does the money come from in each case?  While in Spain only 22% of the money comes from private sources (mostly families), private funding accounts for 64% of spending in the U.S.. As it turns out, in terms of public funding, Spain makes a bigger investment per student ($10,400) than the U.S. does ($9,200).

While discussions in the U.S. tend to be about whether universities overspend and overcharge, discussions in Spain tend to be about whether universities underspend–yet there’s a general reticence to considering higher private/family funding.  I would argue that the U.S. has gone too far in shifting the cost of higher ed from public sources to families–thus current debates around affordability and ballooning student debt.  But I would also argue that Spanish universities desperately need additional funding, even if it means to shift some of the burden to families.

Spain’s focus on public funding and very low tuition has delivered on access.  According to the OECD, 60% of men and 70% of women 25-34 have a college education, while the numbers are 38% and 30% among people 55-64.  In only one generation, college has gone from a privilege of the few, to an opportunity for all, an outcome that deserves to be recognized and celebrated.  Yet this funding and governance system that emphasizes uniformity and access has failed to produce research universities that compete with the world’s best and which are essential to fuel the country’s innovation capacity.  Spain needs to accept a broader diversity of missions and roles among its universities, recognize that not every university can nor should try to be all things to all people, allow more flexibility in tuition policy and, as every one seems to acknowledge but no one dares to push, it needs to radically change its system of governance.