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Educación Médica

versión impresa ISSN 1575-1813

Educ. méd. vol.14 no.4  dic. 2011




The university we want (I). Excellence cannot be bought, it must be pursued

La universidad que queremos (I). La excelencia no se compra, se persigue



Arcadi Gual

Director de la Fundación Educación Médica (FEM). Profesor de la Facultad de Medicina de la Universitat de Barcelona.




In recent years greater value and emphasis has been placed on the word 'excellence'. Our society and our citizens understand that in the public institutions research can only finance itself if it is excellent, that the engagement of (new) teaching staff will be based on excellence, and that there can only be teaching, care, research, administration, professionals and research projects if they are excellent. This devotion to excellence, although not made explicit, should embody a rejection of mediocrity. Amen.

Yet, all that glitters is not gold. The universal excellence that is being proposed as a standard of improvement is a fallacy and is often knowingly misrepresented by excellence lobbies that use the meaning of words to their own convenience in order to sell their product to society. But can anyone in their right mind really be against excellence? The answer is no. Can anyone defend the idea that research or human resources, teaching staff or researchers do not need to be excellent? Can anybody defend the notion that both generating and transmitting knowledge -the two prime responsibilities of universities- do not have to pursue excellence? And the answer continues to be no, no and no. Let me put the question another way: do we want an excellent university? And the answer is yes, yes and yes. But it doesn't look like it, because we feel satisfied with what we have and we do not show any interest in improving the returns we get from our tax contributions.

Where is the fallacy, the deception, the prevarication? The fallacy lies in the question itself. It is a question that is neither well-posed nor well-meaning. The question as to whether we want an 'excellent' university is not a question -it is a something that is obvious. A university, if it is a university, has to be or has to tend towards excellence. It is inherent. Correctly formulated, the questions would be others, such as: is our university excellent, or does it strive to be? What must a university do to be excellent? Do we do the right things, from within and from outside, to have and maintain an excellent university?

My own personal and, of course, wholly subjective opinion is that in relation to our socioeconomic surroundings we have a very high quality university, with very good human resources; the efforts made by the university and the members of the university community to accomplish their mission of generating and transmitting knowledge go far beyond the level of the resources they have available to them. Yet, despite all these positive points our university is not excellent. Let's say that between where we stand and where we want to be there is still quite a gap to cover. And at this point another relevant question pops up: how do we cross the gap between the university as it stands today and the one we want for tomorrow? Excellence cannot be bought overnight. Excellence is not a finished, standardised product that is on the market. Rather, it is the result of a collective ongoing struggle that is based on sacrifice, imagination and shared talent. It is no use signing up a top player or devoting the resources we have available to pampering what are supposed to be top players. This might be all right if it was in addition to. We may consider drastic solutions like dismissing all the human resources available and taking on only the best players to build a team of galactic superstars. Or we could let the existing universities die with the creepy-crawlies inside them so that new structures can be built with only the best teachers and researchers. We could also leave the present universities to play a role as bettering structures (from the verb to better) so as to generate centres of excellence that are a far cry from the university or some other whim that might occur to us. But these solutions are not, and never have been, realistic or possible.

The problem of crossing the gap that separates the university we have from the one we want is simpler than it seems, although we must not mistake 'simple' for 'without cost'. We have to do what any company that wants to improve its products or the service it offers would do, namely, draw up a quality improvement plan. If I bake bread and I want to improve it, I need better flour, a better oven and a baker who knows how to use the new flour to make better dough and who knows how to get the best out of the new oven. I also need to test, to evaluate, the bread every morning to see whether it has risen properly and whether I can make it better. Just four things -there's nothing else to it. But I also need something that is a little more complex: I have to want to do it or, failing that, I must have the obligation to do it.

The university needs better flour and better ovens. It also needs to have trained the bakers to work with the new flour and the new ovens. And it needs someone to come round every morning to check the quality of the products (outcomes) resulting from its teaching and its research. This someone can be a result of the institution's own willingness or may be imposed by society.

The country cannot afford to devote any more resources to the excellence of the idle or those consumed by mediocrity. Above all, the country needs to improve the quality of all its institutions, one of the most important of which is without a doubt its universities. The path towards improving the university a little more each day is to make so many top players available to the institutions of excellence that it will no longer be necessary to bring them in from outside. The university we want is a university that seeks improvement of a 'proven permanent quality'. Excellence will come of itself, as a consequence of persevering in our endeavours and ensuring the best talent is used to guide them.



Arcadi Gual Sala.
Departamento de Ciencias Fisiológicas I.
Facultad de Medicina.
Universitat de Barcelona. Barcelona, España.

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