Antonio Abril: “I told Castells: 'You have to withstand the pressure, you have to carry out the university reform'

Antonio Abril (Viveiro, Lugo-1957), president of the Conference of Social Councils of Spanish Universities ―the bridge between society and public campuses―, would love it if the university reform “generated half of the debate in the pension plan”, but no, so he does not hide that he is looking for “speakers” to change the draft of the LOSU (Organic Law of the University System). “It is outrageous, an impressive setback, and since there is no debate in Spain, the problem is not addressed”, despairs Abril, who has been linked to the classroom for 33 years, also as an associate professor of Administrative Law and president of the Social Council of the University of A Coruna. His speech is alarmist, although he does not lose hope in the final text of a regulation of which Minister Manuel Castells made at least four versions (less and less groundbreaking) and his successor, with whom he meets this Tuesday, Joan Subirats, a.

Abril took out the oppositions to the State lawyer, but soon embarked on the Amancio Ortega project and has been in charge of the general secretary of Inditex, the Zara giant, for 32 years, until mid-2021. So with the outgoing minister He spared no parallels. “I have heard Manuel Castells say: ‘You’re right, I know very well what works, but in Spain it doesn’t work’. And I told him: ‘Don’t tell me it’s impossible, it has to be. What you have to put are the means. Was it possible that the world’s leading manufacturing and distribution company for fashion and accessories was in Arteixo? No, and there you have it’. Everything is possible if you have the means. We need a reformist spirit and a State pact to reform the University”.

Ask. The OECD roadmap for the Spanish University calls for changes that coincide with theirs.

Response. The sheet has gone unnoticed, like all the reports that have been made about the Spanish university, because it is not a subject that has an impact [en la sociedad]. What the OECD tells you is that the improvement of the science, technology and innovation system has to start with the reform of university governance. We are not talking about the election of the rector, but about management, government, transparency and control of results.

Universities, if I may use the expression, what the OECD says is absolutely happening

P. You believe that LOSU is even “a missed opportunity.”

R. It does not address the great pending reform of society and the economy. Because the universities do a lot of good research, but we fail to transfer all the results to the productive sector. The governance system has isolated the universities from society, with certain pseudo-cultural approaches of incompatibility between one and the other. Not by chance, Europe, among the conditions for giving the funds Next Generationasks for a new university law and the first objective that it establishes is the good governance (good governance) with the participation of society, that is, with a balance of powers. And, not by chance, either, the roadmap carried out by the OECD says the same thing, requested by the Ministry of Science and Innovation – which has the will to follow it scrupulously – and by the Ministry of Universities which, if I may use the expression , is absolutely passing what he says.

P. LOSU will have something good.

R. It has undeniable improvements for the University: the commitment to diversity, the commitment to equality, internationalization, financial self-sufficiency, the commitment of 1% of GDP financing… But in governance it minimizes the participation of society in the management of the government and the accountability of public universities and it is serious.

P. But the Subirats project is a basic law and it is not known how each university is going to carry out the reform.

R. Inexplicably and in some cases unacceptably, the competences of the representation of society, of the social councils, are minimized. Our reports are no longer binding and decisive, for example on the degree map, when it is a clamor that they must be adapted to the real needs of the productive fabric.

Let’s not confuse university autonomy with universities doing whatever they want

P. They insist a lot on transparency.

R. The Court of Accounts and the external control bodies of the autonomous communities have been saying for a long time that there is really no transparency and accountability in the universities, and that the law does not exist or is not complied with regarding the functions of the Social Council in the control of the budgets, because we do not have competences in the internal control of the University. There are only four universities.

P. What do you think of the new route that would allow there to be full professors or non-civil servant professors who can earn more?

R. We are in favor of a reasonable employment contract, as long as the conditions and requirements of accreditation and quality are met. It is a trend in Europe.

P. But it could be a way of paying favors from the regional governments to certain people.

R. Labor contracting is obviously freer and that is why accountability to society is very important.

P. He speaks as if the law were trying to corner the social councils.

R. Unfortunately, this is the case in the preliminary draft, but we trust that it will not go to the Council of Ministers in this way or, rather, that it will improve in the parliamentary process.

Talent management does not have to affect university autonomy

P. Is no center being managed well in Spain?

R. Public science in Spain is competitive and meritocratic. You have it in the Icrea [centro de investigación en Cataluña], at Ikerbasque in the Basque Country or at the Severo Ochoa and María de Maeztu centers of excellence. You meet with them and they tell you: we do exactly what public universities do not do and that is to apply talent management criteria. We hire in terms of the market, we go for the researchers, we pay them based on results, we render accounts, if they meet the objectives we renew them… We have to overcome resistance, that’s why we have asked for a State pact.

P. Do you see the State pact for the University feasible?

R. Politics, by definition, is partisan. Every year I see it more difficult, but obviously it will not be for us. The other day, a big investor in a private university told me: “You’re not going to get anything. I’m going to get it. Because competition from private universities [las públicas están perdiendo terreno] It will force the system to react.” I do not share that opinion. Now, public universities are facing a very competitive Vocational Training, the demographic crisis, a tremendous rigidity of the templates to react…

P. Is a university a company?

R. No, it is a public institution. But go to a Social Security hospital and say that the director is going to be chosen by a corporate vote of the nurses, the patients and the doctors. And then tell me, are you going to operate with them? No. Therefore, the University does not work professionally.

P. Does the manager have to be someone from outside the university?

R. You have to look for the best. Professionalize management. Throughout the world, the owner of the research results is the institution, specialized professionals transfer the results and compensation is given to the researcher. While in Spain, the researcher himself transfers or does not transfer. The OTRIS [Oficinas de Transferencia de Resultados de Investigación] They don’t work because they have officials who haven’t received any special training.

P. Should the rector also be external?

R. The other day there was an advertisement in a Spanish newspaper for the University of Aveiro [Portugal] for the hiring of a director. Merit Contest. When will we see this in Spain? A professor from the University of Oxford, from Delhi can answer… But the best rector in the world cannot come to Spain. He has to stand for election [el anteproyecto de la LOSU permite regularlo]he has to win them and on top of that, even if he wins them, then we do not give him authority or management capacity.

Inbreeding, inbreeding, inbreeding up to the rector, who is the greatest inbred in the kingdom

P. But the university can say in its statutes that the rector is only from the house.

R. Yes, but let’s not confuse university autonomy with universities doing whatever they want. Talent management does not have to affect university autonomy, which is research freedom and academic freedom. And then, effectively, there is a self-organization of the universities. I cannot allow a university to tell me that the representation of the Social Council in the Governing Council is a person [cada claustro determinará su número]. Are you telling me that the company that finances 60% or 80% of the university with its taxes is represented by a man with a voice but no vote in the governing body of the University? This is in the blueprint. We have told the minister that he has to change it. He exposes us in Europe.

Antonio Abril in the rectorate of the Polytechnic University of Madrid at the beginning of June.
Antonio Abril in the rectorate of the Polytechnic University of Madrid at the beginning of June.Louis Sevillano

P. Minister Castells proposed giving the rector more power in the election of his deans, although he later backed down. They agreed?

R. Your company hires a CEO and they can’t tell you not to appoint people. But in the University power goes from the bottom up, not from the top down. The departments elect their boss, inbreeding. Students elect their deans, inbreeding. Inbreeding, inbreeding, inbreeding even to the rector, who is the greatest inbred in the kingdom, because he is logically chosen by his electoral base, which are those who work at the university. This, and that the election of the rector can be made by a body with external participation, generated such internal resistance that the ministry removed him from the next draft. I told him: “Minister [Castells]you have to withstand the pressure, you have to make the reform”.

Do we intend that the University face the challenges of the world with consensus with its electoral bases?

P. But Castells ignored him.

R. I have made decisions in my department [en Inditex] that they have not liked, they have generated resistance and I have had to put up with it, because either I leave or I am still there. And there is the price and sales to reflect transparency. But in a university, the rector has to generate consensus, that word they use so much. Do we intend that the University face the challenges of this world with consensus with its electoral bases?

P. There is a perception within the university that social councils function a bit like savings bank councils, which are sometimes used to pay people for favors, because of the power they give. Former Madrid president Joaquín Leguina has been president of the University of Alcalá for 20 years.

R. We have plenty of self-criticism. We have asked the minister for a statute for the social councils. It is not an institutional position to appear. It’s a job title. It is necessary to make a statute that gives dignity and relevance to the figure of the president and the members of the Social Council. What do we ask? That they be required to be people who have previous university experience, commitment and capacity for dedication and without a political component. And that the president of the Social Council go at least once a year to the corresponding Parliament to render accounts, as in Navarra.

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