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OPINION

The weight of mediocrity

In Spain, the same businessmen who find it normal to put up big money for a luxury leisure toy, are incapable of financing research or education

Universities and research have never been exactly the pride of our nation. Nowadays we hear news about the flight of younger talent to other countries. True, the crisis can destroy research centers that cost millions to raise, and block the renewal of staff. But our universities are a faithful reflection of our society, and cannot be islands of excellence in a sea of contempt for knowledge.

Teaching and research are a university's two basic, complementary functions. It is hard to teach well at higher levels without the ideas supplied by research. Spanish universities, however, do not compete for professors and researchers. The vast majority of professors in Spain are civil servants with a safe salary for life, in posts they have risen to in their native cities, surrounded by their friends, to whom nothing need be demonstrated. Even when there was money and contracts in abundance, it was unusual to hire outsiders or select on grounds of merit. Whatever excellence existed, was where it was by mere chance. The consequences, in terms of endogamy and sclerosis, are clear.

How much money was invested (blown) on the idea, so beloved of local politicians, that every provincial city ought to have a university of its own, preferably with outlying campuses in nearby towns? The last consideration was what kind of professors, libraries and laboratories these places might possess. It was a short-term racket to get votes, conducted in absolute ignorance of what a real institution is about. Without proper resources, what you get is a caricature of a university.

Our universities are a reflection of our society, and cannot be islands of excellence in a sea of contempt for knowledge

We recently learned that the king has given up the use of his yacht, which cost a large sum of money, put up by the Balearic Islands government and by a group of top businessmen, mostly from the region's tourist industry. This seemed normal enough. But in Spain, the same businessmen who find it normal to put up big money for a luxury leisure toy, are incapable of financing research or education. We blame the politicians, who skimp on education and research budgets and interfere in the governance of universities. But little complaint is heard of a corporate and financial system built around easy profits and quick killings.

The much-vaunted "brand-name Spain" has never had anything to do with research and education, which call for patient work and investment. To survive, any social institution calls for ongoing replacement of the old by the young, and new voices in the development of ideas and alternatives. We hear much of those who go off to Germany, of the college-educated generation; but education is something else, much more than acquiring professional accreditation by means of a degree. Education means the all-round development of the individual, quite apart from professional training. It necessarily includes comprehension of the nature of things and the world around us. Education is an indispensable guide to the inner workings of the complex society we have created and to the revision, aided by exhaustive research, of received ideas. Spanish students are in general an undemanding bunch and, for most of them, university is a mere prolongation of high school. To pass each year they sit dozens of examinations, in which they merely reproduce the precepts acquired in their classes. They seldom attend seminars or debates and their knowledge of other languages and cultures is deficient.

And though education and research are not going to straighten out all our social ills, higher intellectual and professional training has always been identified with advanced societies. We cannot feel much nostalgia for the recent past, because the mediocre results are there. But with our present government, its cutbacks and bizarre recipes for climbing out of the crisis, there is even less reason for optimism.