Story by Morgan Lawrence
BARCELONA – Hundreds of protesters stopped traffic and packed the streets of Barcelona last Thursday, airing grievances against the national Ministry of Education’s decision to overhaul degree requirements for public universities. This was the latest revolt against the reformatory law, which many see as likely to limit education and employment opportunities by making higher education more exclusive to the wealthy.
Often referred to as “3 + 2,” the act began as a wide-reaching Royal Decree, approved in late January by Spain’s Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports. It was adopted within days by the autonomous government of Catalonia, a four-province region that includes Barcelona. All public universities in the region will be held to the new standard.
The measure approves the restructuring of public university graduation requirements: In a departure from the four-year model, those wishing to obtain a bachelor’s degree would complete their courses in three years, with the option of a two-year master’s degree instead of the current one-year program. At present, the majority of university students in the rest of Europe graduate in three years, having similar credit-hour requirements to what this law would impose.
On its face, this is an extension of what’s called the Bologna Program – an effort to create a unified standard across the European Union. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization defines this as a move in higher education across Europe to “enable students and … graduates to more easily move from one country to another, increase the attractiveness of Europe as a place to study and work and promote peace and stability in the region.” The text of the Royal Decree, translated from Catalan, states that the previous system “distances” Spain from the rest of Europe.
Opponents of 3 + 2, however, worry that with the economic instability in Spain and Catalonia, the adoption of these reforms will result in dramatic repercussions for students.
The loud but peaceful demonstration on May 14 sought to launch complaints against the decree and to pressure individual universities not to adopt the regulations. Ultimately, the deans of individual universities must choose to adopt the program.
Carrying banners, signs and flags, the protesters represented a combination of unions, student organizations and university-specific assemblies.
“Students Recover the Future,” read a banner at the head of the protest. “Stop the 3 + 2.”
Participants wove through the busy streets of metropolitan Barcelona, a barrier of police cars and a trail of non-permanent vandalism in their wake. A storefront adjacent to the bustling Plaza Catalunya was spotted with paint pellets, for example, and writable surfaces were graffitied with marker including the anarchist “A” on a bus stop. Turning off the main thoroughfare, protesters marched under the landmark Arc de Triomf, reaching their destination at the campus of Universitat Pompeu Fabra in the heat of the afternoon.
The march culminated in one last demonstration: Four anonymous participants, masked and clad in black, appeared on an upper floor overlooking the school’s courtyard as the crowd assembled. They held flares and unfurled a banner, written in the region’s Catalan dialect, as the crowd roared below: “The Future Belongs to Us. The Fight Educates. Students, Get Organized.”
One protest leader, Elia Borras, 19, read prepared remarks directed at Catalonia’s ruling party Convergencia I Uno, or Convergence and Unions (CIU). A representative of a student and faculty assembly within her university’s communications department, Borras is also an activist for a left-leaning Catalonian group.
“Education is a right, it’s not a privilege – a right which is becoming more and more exclusive as years go by,” she declared into a megaphone to applause. “We can’t allow this. This is unbecoming of a public university.”
Nuria Alvarez, 23, marched as a graduate student representative of a student council and group “Stop 3 + 2.” She noted that this particular effort had encouraged many Catalonian student unions, faculty assemblies and other student organizations to attend.
Catalonia and its universities have seen several budget cuts as the country has struggled financially over the last few years, with school budgets 20 percent less than they once were, according to Elisenda Paluzie, dean of the faculty of economics and business at the University of Barcelona. As a result, the cost to attend school has gone up.
“People are getting richer elsewhere,” said Adrian, 19, a first-year student who declined to give a last name. “We’re getting poorer here.”
According to Paluzie, an undergraduate degree in Spain was once the equivalent of $1,000, and the master’s program $1,800; the tuitions have almost doubled over that time period, now around $2,000 and $3,300 respectively.
“Now the problem is if the reform reduces the undergrad degrees for three years,” she says. “Before, they were paying three years of the lowest price. Now the price of undergraduate degree is going to be three years, and they will be forced to do a master’s, which is a little bit more expensive.”
Previous increases in tuition have inspired public action in Barcelona as well. One large-scale protest in 2012 saw demonstrators clashing with police, and more demonstrations occurred the following year as further budget-slashing measures took effect. There have been at least two or three such protests per year through this period, Paluzie noted. Other major cities, such as Madrid and Valencia, saw similar demonstrations around the same time.
Protesters on Thursday expressed the worry that tuition hikes, coupled with these reforms, would be especially prohibitive to lower-income students obtaining degrees, resulting in a move away from equal opportunity education.
“This is a protest against this sort of covert privatization,” Pedro Rodriguez, 23, a fourth-year student of philosophy, said through a translator. He marched as a member of student activist group No Pasarán, or “[They] Shall Not Pass.”
It’s important to note: Students would not be required to obtain a master’s degree and pay the extra two-year tuition. However, opponents believe that the gap between those who can, and do, obtain the higher degree would result in a devaluing of the bachelor’s alone.
The official press release by the Ministry of Education states that in “only 10 percent of cases,” it would be necessary for a graduate to obtain a master’s to get a job, and that it would further save families money as “only 20 percent of students choose to enroll in a master’s program.”
Some universities and related organizations have voiced concerns with, or rejected, the regulations. In March, the Spanish Association of Universities with Degrees in Information and Communication (ATIC) issued a statement opposing the decree, claiming it would result in the “degradation of the university and its role in modern societies. Also, the University of Valencia called for its “abolition.” That same month, the rector of the University of Barcelona gave an address calling the act “unnecessary,” expressing the belief that the act could cost the university millions and create a “grave and problematic” situation.
“University shouldn’t become an elitist thing, it should be available to everyone – especially the lower classes, the working classes,” said Borras. “Because it is their only way out, whereas richer classes don’t really need it, necessarily. They can find other ways out.”
Alex Newman contributed to reporting for this story.