Francisco Michavila

Francisco Machavila has been professor of applied mathematics in the Applied Mathematics and Computer Systems Department at the Polytechnic University of Madrid since 1980 and the director of the UNESCO Chair of University Management and Policy since 1999. He is currently honorary rector at the Jaume I University in Castellón, a full member of the Royal Academy of Doctors, a fellow of the Spanish Academy of Science and Art and a patron of the Giner de los Ríos Foundation (the Free Institution for Education). He served as secretary-general for the Universities Board, was the first rector of Jaume I University in Castellón and is a member of the Valencia Council of Culture. He is the author of books on university policy and applied mathematics. Furthermore, he has published more than two hundred articles on the current situation of universities and more than seventy scientific articles in international publications. He has actively taken part in matters of university policy, including assessment of quality assurance and accreditation in universities, models of university financing, university organisation and faculty education.

Director. UNESCO Chair of University Management and Policy at the Technical University of Madrid

“We must position the university in the centre of the social scenery and make it an engine of economic growth, quality of life and social cohesion and progress”

Francisco Michavila spoke about the main challenges that must be faced by the Spanish higher education system within the European Higher Education Area. He also spoke about the role the university should play in society from the perspective of social responsibility. Francisco Michavila took part in the round table entitled “Accreditation in the EHEA” during the Third International Barcelona Conference on Higher Education: “Accreditation for the Quality Assurance: What is at Stake?”

What impact will full incorporation into the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) have in Spain?

If we do it well, the incorporation of Spain into the EHEA could have a huge impact. This is a country that has always looked at Europe as a solution to its problems, and this attitude is shared by our universities. One must remember that since the beginning of the twentieth century our most promising talents have circulated among the best European universities. To participate now in a common project in which our young people will be educated alongside those of France, Germany, Britain, Italy, etc., is a great opportunity.

One has to understand the EHEA as something more comprehensive than simply a tool for evening out the lengths of our courses. We must position the university in the centre of its social setting and make it an engine of economic growth, of social progress, of social cohesion and of quality of life.

What are the most difficult changes for Spain to come to terms with in relation to the aims and objectives of the new EHEA?

Although there are many, there is one that is especially evident and important: the lack of funding. It is necessary to revise university funding. In the European Union there is a financial deficit of more than one point in comparison with countries such as the United States, Korea, or Canada. Last year the European Commission suggested revising the average European values, and increasing them by half a point in order to reach a value of 2% of the GDP. In the case of Spain, we are at 1% so an increase in resources is necessary. There remains the question of the origin of the funding; one part will come from the public sector and the other from the private sector. I hope to enter into the debate on this question in the coming months, but if not certainly within the next few years.

The second aspect to emphasise is the need to “prune” unnecessary legislation. It is important to move from a legislation of mistrust, such as that which we have at the moment, to a legislation of trust. It is a matter of substituting the regulations that mistrust the good work of university professionals and citizens with regulations based on performance, on results, and on the good use of public resources.

The third aspect to emphasise would be to highlight that higher education should be involved in forming citizens. Until now higher education has been conceived of as training for professionals: architects, doctors, historians, and engineers, to give a few examples. This is all very well, because the education of professionals must be improved and the faults that still exist must be attended to, but as well as this it is important to train people to be citizens.

It is easy to see how little this subject is understood if we consider the ignorant and disrespectful reaction of certain sections of society to the attempt to incorporate a citizenship class into the secondary school curriculum. It reminds me of the idea of Machado: “They scorn what they don’t understand.” Until now the training of citizens was an exercise limited to the family or the secondary education system, but now the university is involved. This is not simply an aesthetic exercise. Our society is approaching the point where the dangers of exclusion and the emerging problems of social cohesion must be tackled, and the university has a role to play in it.

The university must aid a common project of intercultural coexistence. In this project it is necessary to incorporate citizens from other places with less resources, but not so that they come to do the jobs that we don’t like, to clear the roads when it is cold in winter, or to look after the elderly, but so that they can be integrated into our society, and in this way create a society with a better quality of citizenship.

Furthermore, there are other important changes that could be mentioned: to open the university to the public, the improvement of the transfer of research results developed within the university, and the reform of access to university.

To what extent do European universities incorporate or practice social responsibility, in as far as it can be understood as their contribution to positive and sustainable human development?

For me this is one of the biggest topics. I think that European universities rarely involve themselves in this issue. In fact, only a few universities - those with the greatest economic resources - have effectively engaged with it. In the north of Europe, some universities understand their role as that of social catalyst. We can think of, for example, those territories and countries with employment and exclusion problems where they have created a university campus which has had a local and regional impact. I would like to point out that this has also worked in the south of Europe, so it cannot be said that it is an aspect synonymous only with northern European cultures.

In Spain, for example, similar situations have arisen: in Barcelona, the role which the Pompeu i Fabra University played in the zone where it was created; or the role of social catalyst that the Jaume I University in Castellón played, in which I had the great honour of being the founding rector; and likewise, the catalysing role of the Carlos III University in Madrid, located in a southern zone of the city with one of the lowest levels of development in the community. I could give many more examples.

The university’s beneficial social activities should implicate it in contributing to its region in two fundamental ways. Firstly, in the generation of wealth through education programmes adapted to the region, the training of social leaders, and the transfer of results from the university to the public and productive sectors. Secondly, in that the university is the voice of society in the face of social problems, that it is a voice that demands the European values of democracy, humanism, rationality, secularism, and the status of citizenship.

The voice of the university must be sensitive to citizens’ problems, and in this aspect we have a severe lack of representation. For example, I can not remember any university institutions in Spain speaking out when confronted with problems such as the oil spill in Galicia. Many young people and professors went there to help, but the university institutions did not, as institutions, intervene for the benefit of society.

In your opinion, what answers could the EHEA offer before the possibility of an economic and social paradigm shift, where social conditions are less valued than those of the market?

This is a subject that, to my way of thinking, should be dealt with in political terms rather than academic ones. Therefore the question becomes: “What do we expect of the European Union?”. Government policies regarding the concession of sovereignty in determined areas will only arrive according to our expectations. Within the sphere of education, the concession of sovereignty is very limited; there exists a certain level of mistrust. There are even barometers of European opinion that indicate the people’s distrust of the more global, European policies when compared to national policies.

In the Sorbonne declaration eight years ago, it was said that to speak about Europe does not only mean to speak about the economy, about the bank, but also about Europe’s knowledge and universities. If we make a social Europe, beyond the European economy, then the sensitivity of a university interested in its social setting will have a massive value. Europe needs a boost, Europe is an irregular project, and for every two steps forward it takes one back. I have the suspicion that in recent times we have taken a step back, but because I am a radical pro-European I am convinced that the two steps forward will come next.

This diverse European project is our sign of identity, we are a diverse society, facing the American monolith of one language and one culture. It is evident that this diversity requires a bigger effort, but that it also signifies something much richer. My idea is much closer to the “quiet power” that is Europe, as Todorov would say, than any type of monolith.


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya
  • Ajuntament de Barcelona