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Let Spanish universities compete with each other

Shanghai Ranking 2012: Not a single Spanish university made it to the top 200

It struck me as surprising the fact that not a single Spanish university made it to the top-200 at the last Academic Ranking of World University 2012, published by Shanghai University. Two European ones made it to the top ten (Cambridge and Oxford).Image

In addition, a number of universities from major European countries (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, UK) made it to the top 100. The first Spanish university (Autonomous University of Madrid) appears somewhere between positions 200 and 300. Other university rankings cast similar results.

As of 2012, there are 79 universities in Spain, 50 of which are public and 29 private. Given this number of universities, it seems obvious that there must be some special causes that explain this rather surprising fact, that none of the 79 universities appear in the first two hundred positions of the ranking.

Someone might suggest that it is the lack of appropriate management that produces such disappointing results. However, this does not seems to be the case, if one considers the encouraging fact that three (private) Spanish business schools (IESE, ESADE, and IE) always get outstanding marks at the European and world level. For instance, in 2012, The Economist ranked IESE’s MBA program as the top two-year MBA in Europe and 9th in the world. There are indeed great managers and professors at Spanish universities, both public and private.

In my opinion, the main reasons, among others, for Spain lagging behind in the rankings are somewhere else:

First, universities do not compete to each other. This is especially true among public universities. Spaniards do usually care about the type of degree (e.g., Engineering or Business), but not much about at which university such a degree has been issued. Therefore, there is no incentive to be the best school of Law in the country, as the market does not reward it. This leads to potential students selecting the university to study purely on a convenience basis. A large amount of undergrads study in or nearby their home towns. This has been reinforced by the autonomous communities in Spain, which have created a university (or at least a campus) at each of the fifty Spanish provinces, following a me-too policy that challenges the most elementary social planner’s common sense.

Second, public universities are not allowed to select students and have very astringent rules to hire and fire its faculties, and its staff in general. This leads to 1) mediocrity, as incentives to stand out are nonexistent (other than intrinsic) for both students and staff, 2) the formation of tightly-knit groups, which are commonplace in many universities, 3) the runaway of talented professors or professors-to-be, who find their place in the industry as incentives at universities are not appropriate for them.

Third, students (or their parents, who are the ones paying the bill for a vast majority of youngsters) are not usually willing to pay much money to get best-in-class education in a top-notch university. Many years of  inexpensive fees at public universities have made potential students believe that university education is a fundamental right in society like, say, health care, thus they do not see the point of paying what they consider to be a huge amount of money to get tertiary education. This leads to private universities reducing fees to be able to compete with public universities. Lower fees means less funds to be spent on top-notch professors, laboratories, and so on, preventing the formation of virtuous circles of excellence and meritocracy.

The good news is that the solution for the above-mentioned problems is quite straightforward, at least in theory, given that university competition should be perceived  as a healthy exercise and has proved to work well in the countries leading the ranking. The challenge, as usual, is the execution part of the plan, which can be seen as highly unpopular by those who feel comfortable with the status-quo.

These are my two cents. I would love to hear other opinions.

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