Even in a country used to academic fraud scandals, the past few months in Spain have been remarkable — it would perhaps be easier to list the Spanish politicians who don’t have questions hanging over their degrees.
Spanish newspapers are full of fevered discussion about what level of coincidence on Turnitin (an Internet-based plagiarism detection service) constitutes plagiarism. Students have taken to the streets to demand an end to corruption on campus, chanting, “We want the mafia out of this university”.
Observers say the scandals are a sign of poor quality assurance in Spanish higher education, a need to bring in money to support underfunded postgraduate programmes, and Spanish politicians’ unhealthy obsession with academic credentials.
The crisis started in April, when doubts were raised over the Masters degrees of two opposition Popular Party politicians: Cristina Cifuentes, leader of Madrid’s regional government at the time, and party leader Pablo Casado. Both degrees were awarded by the Institute of Public Law at the King Juan Carlos University (URJC), Madrid.
The pair were accused of not taking classes, sitting for exams or producing a thesis — but in both cases they blamed the university, saying they had simply done everything asked of them. Cifuentes stepped down in late April following a further scandal over alleged shoplifting, while Casado is still under investigation by the Supreme Court. The scandal has now reached the prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, who has been forced to release his economics doctorate — completed at another institution — amid accusations of plagiarism.
These events have revealed just how keen Spanish politicians are to get their hands on academic credentials, according to Manuel Villoria, professor of political science at URJC, who describes their hunger for degrees as a way of spicing up otherwise dull CVs. “Most of our politicians are professionals… They decide to dedicate their lives to politics,” he says. “So some of them decide to create an idea that they’re not only politicians, but also professors.”
Most of these latest scandals have focused on URJC, and in particular its Institute of Public Law. Neither the university nor the head of the institute, Enrique Alvarez Conde, who controls its accounts, responded to a request for comment. Malpractices are unlikely to be limited just to one institute, says Villoria. The problems of weak quality assurance go much further, particularly at the Masters level.
The recent scandals are far from unique — other politicians have been accused of similar academic misconduct for years, says Inger Enkvist, professor emerita of Spanish studies at Lund University in Sweden and an expert on Spanish university corruption. In 2016 Fernando Suarez, then URJC president, was forced to quit following plagiarism accusations. “It would be taking the easy way out” to blame this latest crisis on just one person, warns Enkvist.