In the late 1980s, Spain had thirty-four universities, four of which were run by the Catholic Church (three by Jesuits and one by Opus Dei). Although the Catholic universities enrolled only 30,000 of the country's 900,000 students, they were highly regarded, especially by conservative, middle-class Spaniards, and therefore they exerted an influence in higher education far out of proportion to their size. The two largest and most respected state universities, the Complutense in Madrid, which by the late 1980s enrolled about 100,000 undergraduates, and the Central in Barcelona, which had about 80,000, together accounted for almost 20 percent of all university students.
Until the 1980s, the universities were under the direct control of the central government's Ministry of Education and Science. In 1983 the Socialist government passed the Law on University Reform (Ley de Reforma Universitaria--LRU), which weakened central government control over universities and gave increased autonomy to each public university. Universities were relatively free to offer new programs and to restructure themselves internally so long as they met the qualifications imposed on all state universities. The law also weakened (at least on paper) the control of the universities that had been exercised by the catedraticos, the senior professors who held the highly prestigious chairs in each department. The new law provided that control of the universities would shift to the claustro constituyente or university council made up of professors of all ranks, as well as administrators, staff, and occasionally, for certain purposes, students.
The university system offered two distinct tracks that emphasized either academic or vocational subjects. Students could pursue a five-year or a six-year course of study in the liberal and professional programs offered by the conventional facultades (pl., sing., facultad) or departments, or a three-year program at the escuelas universitarias, which offered training in nursing, teaching, and other less elite professions. Not surprisingly, the degrees offered by the escuelas usually had a lower status than those given in the more traditional academic programs.
Spain's universities grew even more rapidly during the 1960s than the elementary and secondary schools; enrollments increased from 77,000 to 241,000 between 1960 and 1972. The 1970 General Law on Education prescribed that each student completing the bachillerato course should have a university place available to him or to her, but by the mid-1970s the government reintroduced entrance exams to slow the explosive growth of the university system. Growth continued nevertheless, and by the 1986-87 academic year, the universities enrolled about 900,000 students. Of these, about two-thirds were studying in the traditional facultades and the rest, in the more applied programs in the escuelas.
In the late 1980s, Spain had the second highest ratio of university students to population in Western Europe, yet spending per student was only one-third of the West European average, leading to poorly paid faculty (the average university professor earned only slightly more than US$21,000 per year) and inadequate facilities, such as laboratories and libraries. Only a few of the more modern universities had student residences or dormitories; students at the older, urban universities lived at home or in apartments with other students. Instruction emphasized rote memory rather than independent analysis, and university faculties rarely combined research and teaching. In addition, the university system seemed poorly attuned to the needs of the rest of the country because it was preparing far too many young people for career fields already filled to overflowing (medicine, for example) and far too few for the jobs needed in an advanced industrial society, such as those involving computers and information science.
To a much greater degree than was true for elementary and secondary education, higher education tended to perpetuate longstanding social cleavages. Writing in 1985, Minister of Education and Science Maravall observed that 10 years earlier, 66 percent of the children of university-educated parents were able to attend university, while only 3 percent of the children of parents with just a primary education had had this opportunity. In 1980 children of parents in the upper education levels were twenty-eight times more likely to enter a university than were children of unskilled workers. Even after a decade of education reform, most university students depended completely on their parents for support through the end of their studies. The country's high unemployment rate, as well as the tradition that university students did not work while completing their studies, meant that few students could pay their own education costs. The country still lacked programs of scholarships and student subsidies that would enable education expenses to be borne by society as a whole. The result was that a university education was largely the privilege of the middle and the upper classes. To some degree, the same was true of the place of women in higher education. Although in 1984 about 47 percent of the country's university enrollment was female (a figure higher than that in most other countries in Western Europe), relatively few women went on to become university professors. The majority of university-educated women continued to pursue the professions traditionally open to them, especially pharmacy, journalism, and teaching at the elementary and the secondary levels.
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