[translations idioma=”ES” url=”https://archives.rgnn.org/2014/03/31/serie-educacion-la-linea-fina-entre-hiperformacion-y-cualificacion/”]
Under the motto, “Education is the key,” ROOSTERGNN is publishing a Special Series dedicated exclusively to one of the most important topics defining our society of today: Education. View the complete series here.

MADRID, SPAIN. In an exclusive interview, ROOSTERGNN spoke with Juan Gimeno, Director of Spain’s UNED, or National University of Distance Education.

As a teacher of higher education, what do you think about the recurring PISA results? Is Spain failing to train students in primary education, which is creating an inoperative model of professional training in higher education?

Juan Gimeno: I think that we are being negligent at all stages, but it is true that you begin to build in early childhood education, and whatever mistake is taken along from there, it becomes more difficult to fix later.

Why do we have bad results? The first reason is legislative instability: we do not allow enough time for a certain system to become established and functioning. There practically has not been any generation that has ended their studies with the same system with which they started, and this is fatal for any kind of education system. What happens? The teachers have to devote more time to adapt to more bureaucracy rather than perfect their teaching methods, strategies, possibilities, etc. That is the first big mistake.

Second big mistake: we pay too much attention to the Macro and Micro elements of education. In the end the problem is in every school, in the integration of students, and in how disruptive students are handled, because when you start to concentrate on certain issues more than others, you are condemning the others to falling further behind. We need to pay more attention to how education is managed in each classroom at each institution.

Third mistake: it is worrisome to me that in certain meetings held by those responsible for reform within the Ministry of Education, the teachers present are not able to speak. The core of any education system is the teacher. The main attention should be given to them. I once said that a good teacher is capable of teaching a good class in a garage, and therefore the system must focus on preparation, assessment, incentive, autonomy, and system stability.

So, if you were to propose a management system from outside of Spain that you would like, would it be the Finnish system?

No. I think that you can learn from other systems, but each one is unique depending on its own social circumstances. You have to be careful with copying the entire system, because they never will work exactly the same. But yes, let’s look beyond our borders and learn, and I believe above everything else, let’s give confidence to our teaching teams.

Seeing how there are more and more university students, would you say that we are moving towards a “devaluation” of a college degree?

Fortunately, what was once in the 1970s a luxury, because only the very smart or very wealthy could attend, has now been “democratized,” and more people have access to this opportunity, which is always a positive. The figures on university students in Spain are comparable to those in other countries. However, there is a big difference. In other European countries, there is an intermediate level of education that lasts three years, and this is the level that the majority of students complete. Raise the number of years to five, and there are fewer students. Here, having chosen four years, it has produced, perhaps, a “hyper-formation”: too many years and too much education for the market to absorb.

However, deep down it seems that having “too many graduates” has more to do with the fact that until now, they have more often opted for a model that gives precedence to cheap labor and little training, for example in jobs like construction, tourism, hospitality, and other services. To succeed in the 21st century and to get ahead in productivity, the Spanish economy has to change to a model where qualification is more important, because that’s where we can be more competitive. Not to mention, it would be a mistake to let others take advantage of the results of all the investment we’ve put in education.

With this, it means that we must emphasize that professional training produces skilled labor, but in different way from the university or…?

A couple things: first, we must improve the quality of the professional training so as to change the mindset that it is a “second option.” In fact, it is already becoming more popular. I have heard that many people were unable to have access to professional training due to a lack of seats and there is high employment opportunity in many specialties.

But I’m also talking about the production model itself, where we have to invest in the production of goods and services that require skilled labor.

With Bolonia, do you think it will become easier to find ready-to-work professionals among new college graduates?

Indeed the Bolonia system is based on reducing theoretical content and supporting more practical content for job training. I don’t think it’s so much a requirement of Bolonia, but rather the “information” society. It doesn’t make much sense to burden ourselves with theoretical content when all of this information is available at the click of a button. Therefore, from this perspective, it’s obvious that we must move toward a teaching method with less theory, and more ability.

I would also like to disprove the myth that universities don’t create skills that companies want. The role of the university has to strike a balance: they have to teach us something useful in the development of our profession, but mostly you have to teach the ability to adapt to different situations. You will never arrive at any job knowing exactly what you are going to do; it will depend on the company, on the business. You will always have a job where you must adapt to different goals or styles; it’s impossible for you to be prepared for everything because each position is like its own world. Trying to make all degrees provide perfect professional training would reduce the effectiveness and in the end, give them less adaptability. And that is what is needed more and more: the ability to adapt to a changing world and changing needs.

Having said all of that, the main idea is true: training throughout life is essential. And the university, which I think is doing it, has to pay very close attention to postgraduate training, its own degrees, and making the training more flexible so that one could say, “I need to really work on that specific aspect for my professional career.” Of course, the ideal situation would be that there was more collaboration between the university and the company so that it can improve its worker training.

When it’s said that there is little collaboration between the two, I think it is more the fault of the company than the university. For example, if you compare the research and development data, aside from the fact that they are very low, they are practically insignificant in the company. Of companies that invest in research and development, Spanish businesses are the only ones that do not put value on doctorate degrees, and this mindset has to change.

Education: Government or communities?

Each one has its strengths, but what we have to understand is what exactly is linked to the system of financing the autonomous communities, when these ones are the most powerful and expensive professions (health and education), where it is also difficult to allocate spending and personnel. I usually say that in a company or industry, technology reduces costs, but in sanitation, it actually raises the costs. It produces the opposite effect. In education, they have to give sufficient resources to the autonomous communities so that they can adequately provide the services they have. The argument cannot be distinct from their skills, missions, and the money that they want to spend on the on the welfare state.

That being said, I think there is a very positive aspect of decentralization because it can create a certain stimulus for competition, and until now it was an “upward” stimulus to see who could form a stronger university. Now we are faced with a race to the bottom to see who cuts more. When it seems like the service doesn’t matter but it balances the deficit, it causes a significant deterioration in public governance. What is certain is that it is not neutral when to balance the budget, more is expected from the communities than the state. This clearly means that they are choosing to cut back on health and education instead of on defense and diplomacy.

This is about finance, but in terms of content, I think it is important especially at non-university levels. It’s good that there are some global standards, but regulating as little as possible. Sometimes too much legislation creates a lot of errors. Select a few mandatory requirements with respect to culture, language, math, and citizenship. Call it how you want, but a civic education is essential and from there, you allow autonomy by those institutions. My experience is when you give stability to an institution and its professionals, they are the first to make very interesting initiatives. I remember one in which the entire program was constructed according to history and all the rest followed in the same way. In each class they were studying at the same pace. That was an initiative of the faculty, and if it is prepared and stimulated, we’ll see how it works.

As an economist, you have talked about the different types of rights of the welfare state. We’ve heard that the progression should be very present in all of the stages of the studies. Would you propose a close to 0% financing for the children of large taxpayers?

If the answer were simply yes or no, I would have to lean towards yes. I think the most basic component is to be universal and free, in any field of the welfare state. Education, let´s say until 16 years old, is universal and free. If you want to enroll in a private school, that is your choice, but I guarantee what is considered mandatory will be free.

Starting at compulsory education, the private profits are increasing rather than the collective. Whoever has a university education will have, on average, higher lifetime earnings. Education, therefore, is not a pure public good and cannot be funded as such. The stage where the profit is clearly much more collective than individual has to be free and guaranteed, and the stages where there is a higher private profit than public, must be adjusted according to the ability to pay. At campus universities, every student already has a scholarship of 80% simply for being there and some have it at almost 100%. In a specific example from the National University of Distance Education, some are paying half the cost of tuition because it is a university with economies of scale, and that makes the cost less and the payment more or less the same as the campus universities. In any case, I don´t see anything wrong with the policy of progressive rates; i.e. some students pay a larger share than the average, especially to a certain degree because the collective interest must take precedent. But ultimately the public should have a large say, I would say almost the full say, in state funding, which in turn should be linked to permanent guidelines: a student should consider doing something else when it takes three years to finish the first stage.

However, these progressive rates will be good as long as there are rules to the scholarships that compensate and make sure that no one is left out. The problem is that now the rates are going up and the scholarships are going down. Formally they are saying that it has gone up but that is false. What is happening is that they have spent the exact amount of the budget, well, a little less. Before, they budgeted 100 and 120 was spent. Now it´s 115 and they say “We´ve gone up 15%.” No, the difference is that before, they budgeted 100 but everything that they did was short. It was paid and now they say, “We´ll budget 115, but not a euro more,” which has in fact been reduced but the demands are greater. And yes, even if the budgeted amount had been maintained, we have raised rates in Madrid by 30%; in fact, I´m lowering the aid by 30%. I´m giving the same money for higher rates. Either each student will receive less, or the universities will receive fewer students. That is an exclusion, because by simply having less resources, students will not have access to college, which means a loss of value and human capital for all companies.

You have spoken about a state agreement being the only solution. Are you optimistic enough to hope this will happen?

It would require a change in attitude of some politicians who have been concerned more with making sure the other side doesn´t win, than winning by its own interest and enthusiasm. I know that Minister Gabilondo has gotten closer to getting the Popular Party education officials to agree, but since there was only a year left until elections, the general secretary vetoed the deal because of a few questions: How were they going to sell that picture? How were they going to recognize the success of the Socialist Party? So until that mindset becomes a priority, I have to be very pessimistic. There are certain things that you can disagree with, but there are other things that you should agree upon for the sake of everyone, because in the end, the results are about education for generations and that will affect us.

Speaking of politicians, do you think there is any relationship between the amount of training of the current politicians and the quality of the public service provided?

There may be a relationship, but I don´t want to exaggerate it. I think the understood policy, deservedly, is to represent the citizens and the public interest, which means that it doesn´t take the greatest expert in the world to be a minister, but rather someone with leadership skills and knowledgeable advice. I´ve never believed in “government technicians,” because technically there is never a single solution. You can always set priorities. Therefore, governments are made up of politicians, well-advised, but also who can choose whose advice they take, and whose they don´t. I also wouldn´t put much emphasis on that; obviously better training is beneficial.

Although, maybe I would put the emphasis on areas where we have more of a deficit in honesty and responsibility, and it is most obvious. And that starts with education from the very beginning, which is why I spoke of civic education in the first years that includes values that in today´s society are lacking. If there is no trust in our representatives, the whole system will crumble.

As Director of the UNED, or National University of Distance Education, you have experienced first hand how it has become a pioneer in online education. How has it changed the profile of the student? Are they lost in the mere handling of the technology or has the person already adapted to these technologies? And above all, what will the National University of Distance Education do in the future to distinguish itself from campus universities, which also work well using a virtual campus?

Part of the success of the National University of Distance Education is that it has been changing and evolving for over 40 years. It started by using correspondence, and now it relies on the MOOC (massive open online course). It is true that some of the students have struggled to adapt, but that in itself has added value. The digital literacy that the university has promoted is one of the most important parts. A generation that has already arrived late to the technology changes has become huge. Although it has also resulted in transformation of student profiles, there are students who, as their first choice, choose to complete their Bachelor´s through this university and feel more comfortable in the world.

To not be left behind, you must be aware of what is changing and at the same time be able to recognize what are fireworks that linger for a moment, then later fade. This is where I say that it would make sense that there is a center dedicated to staying on the cutting edge and then going to each university to apply the corresponding results. If the state has already bet on it, something that I´m not convinced should happen, they should use it as virtual support to other Spanish universities. It doesn´t make sense that each university invests in audiovisual and technological means, but they should take advantage of a center that is superior in virtual learning like the National University of Distance Education, serving all Spanish universities so that they would have more evident economies of scale. Then one could make whatever offer it wanted, but by all using the same “railroad track.” But in the end it is a tough challenge.

This university is a well-established reality, with a prestigious reputation in its name that nobody expected. People know that it is very difficult and from here, the students leave very highly prepared and trained. Some would say, “Behind a graduate of the National University of Distance Education, we know that there is someone capable of self-discipline, responsibility, and perseverance; values that are not listed on the resume but come from being a graduate of this university.”

As for the future, it seems that through the MOOC concept, the university is still working in the field and in fact, we can say they are on the same level as MIT and Stanford. The lists of courses offered say MIT, Stanford, Harvard, and the National University of Distance Education.

— Translation: Jordan Zilla.