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Alfonso Sánchez-Tabernero, President of the University of Navarra

What the best universities do not do

The Spanish panorama is a mixture of progress and missed opportunities.

Thu, 01 Jan 2015 12:10:00 +0000 Published in El País

The future of any country depends, to a large extent, on the quality of its university system. The best universities train educated, creative and caring citizens; they generate science and foster innovation and entrepreneurship; and they provide society with a wide range of cultural, educational and health services. It is logical, therefore, that EL PAÍS decides to take the pulse of Spanish universities with some frequency, as it has done with a series of reports, which in turn have led to an interesting discussion.

Those who are most critical of our university system have a good arsenal of arguments and data to justify their positions: they see the glass as "half empty", and recurrently cite the percentages of inbreeding, the lack of motivation of many of the professors, the deficient attention to students, the scarce pedagogical innovation, the inefficiency in the use of resources and the absence of Spanish universities in the first places of some rankings.

On the other hand, we rectors often claim that we are making progress and that if we had more funds we would do it faster. Of course, we can also dive for figures and facts to defend ourselves. I will provide three that seem particularly significant to me: the average number of citations of Spanish scientific publications has tripled in the last 30 years and is above the world average average and that of the OECD countries; the unemployment rate of young Spaniards who have studied at university is only half the corresponding percentage of those who have not studied at university programs of study ; and in some rankingsSpanish universities are among the top 50 of the almost 20,000 university institutions worldwide.In some rankings, Spanish universities are among the top 50 of the almost 20,000 university institutions worldwide: for example, in the ranking of universities with less than 50 years, in the employability ranking, or in the ranking of university business schools.

Perhaps the reasonable thing to do is to recognize that in our university landscape there is a mixture of progress and missed opportunities.

We know what the best universities do: they are excellent at teaching, at research and in transfer to society. However, it is not so easy to discover how they achieve these goals. For some time now I have been tracking the path to university excellence. I have had the good fortune to work in public and private universities in Spain and other countries; and for years I was Vice President of International Office of my current university, which allowed me to visit quite a few of the campus that appear in the top 20 of the lists of the best universities. Whenever I have visited these academic centers, I have always wondered how they manage to be so good. The answer is not simple: some universities are public (Berkeley) and others private (Columbia); some stand out more for their Degree (Princeton) and others for their postgraduate program (Caltech); some are all-encompassing (Oxford) and others specialized (MIT); some are large (UCLA) and others small (Yale).... In other words, each university follows its own path, from agreement with its mission statement, its history and its resources. In other words, it is not possible to indicate what needs to be done to become a good university.

However, in my opinion, the universities cited agree on what to avoid:

1. The best universities are not-for-profit.
Universities that seek to obtain economic profitability assume a competitive disadvantage B compared to those that are not for profit. The best universities invest all their resources in research, in hiring prestigious professors, in improving their facilities, in scholarship programs to attract talented students; if part of that money were to be used to reward shareholders, they would lose part of their quality. A university can be a good business, but then it will not be one of the best academic centers in its environment.

2. The best universities do not tolerate demotivating environments for their professors.
It has always seemed to me that the university is the best place in the world to work: few places combine such a high degree of freedom Degree and such a stimulating intellectual environment. But - even at university - we only get the best out of ourselves when we feel that our work is encouraged. And there is no worse university than one that is dominated by a high percentage of unmotivated professors. The motivation of professors will not necessarily come by way of financial compensation, but it must be clearly perceived: support programs for research or internationalization, an environment that allows ambitious projects to be developed, a culture of partnership. Merit-based incentives attract the best professionals, who know that their dedication and achievements will be rewarded.

3. The best universities do not have an assembly-based government with low efficiency.
The excellent universities -public and private- have a stable and operative government, capable of establishing priorities, of implementing new educational offerings with agility and of paying their employees efficiently. They do not have an assembly government and their decisions are not geared to vote-getting. Democracy may be the best form of governance for states, but not necessarily for organizations. Imagine what would happen if a hospital or a newspaper elected its managers by a weighted vote of its employees: probably those who promised better working conditions in the short term would be elected deadline and not those with more capacity or better projects.

4. The best universities are not highly dependent on the same source income.
Organizations make progress if they have clear strategies, which determine priorities and allow them to develop valuable long-range proposals. But planning is impossible with a dominant revenue source . In many Spanish universities, for example, public funds account for more than 80% of resources. The best universities have diversified sources of income, such as grants, resources from research, academic fees , fees from their alumni, donations and management from their patrimony. And they know that they will get more funds if their teaching programs are attractive; if their research is competitive; if their graduates are grateful; and if they save and build up unendowment to help protect their future.

Spanish universities have made significant progress. Society has made a great effort, which has made it possible to improve facilities, strengthen research, hire more professors, and universalize access to university classrooms. But we have also missed some opportunities and have not always been exemplary in our use of resources. The four obstacles mentioned above have made it difficult for us to make faster progress. It will not be easy to remove them: we will have to overcome vested interests and the inertia of the past. But the universities that manage to do so will be in a position to achieve unquestionable quality and will be rendering a great service to society.