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Leveraging Colegios Mayores for moral development in higher education through the Just Community approach

From March 2022 to March 2024

Colegios Mayores are the Spanish version of the European Colleges, a relatively unknown and long-standing innovation in higher education to serve the socialization of future ethical leaders of society. Over nearly a millennium, they have existed at universities across Europe. In part, they represent a brilliant and extremely innovative approach to this task, by relying on democratic structures, long before democracy reemerged in Europe since ancient Greece. To fully realize the promise and legacy of Colegios Mayores, we propose to build upon contemporary theory and practice in nurturing the development of moral character and just leadership following Kohlberg’s Just Community approach to moral education.

Leveraging through JC: Bienvenido

This project is funded by


The Association for Moral Education (AME) provides an international forum for the interdisciplinary study of the moral and ethical dimensions of human development and education. The Association is dedicated to fostering communication and cooperation among scholars and practitioners considering all aspects of moral learning, development and action across the life-span in multiple roles and contexts, including the school, family, workplace, congregation, and the larger society.

The University of Navarra is a university of Christian inspiration, promoted by Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, founder of Opus Dei. Its mission is to seek and transmit the truth, contribute to the academic, cultural and personal growth of its students; promote scientific research; offer adequate development opportunities to its teachers and employees; and carry out extensive work of cultural impact and social promotion, with a clear purpose of service.

Leveraging through JC: Causas

Project description and significance

Colegios Mayores can be defined as non-profit higher education centers, necessarily integrated in a university, which provide non-formal education to a diverse variety of university students and professors that belong to a value-driven community in a residential context. Nowadays, there are 125 Colegios Mayores distributed in 24 Spanish universities, with nearly 20,000 university students and professors living together. Similar entities exist in other European countries, represented in the European University College Association.

Since their origin, Colegios Mayores have been aimed at preparing citizens who would occupy positions of responsibility in the State, with special emphasis on the civic and moral development necessary to serve society. The founders of these centers established that they should be run by the students themselves, reasoning that this would serve as preparatory training for their subsequent performance as public servants.

One of the most representative educational practices of Colegios Mayores nowadays is collaborative governance. This practice consists of students collaborating in the government of the Colegio Mayor through decision-making and stewardship tasks in a democratic and deliberative way, following the mission and values of their community and contributing to its common good. 

Even though Colegios Mayores have a long tradition of practicing collaborative governance, almost none of them have a formal statement including a detailed description of the educational goals pursued, the structures and processes implemented, and a way to assess certain outcomes related with the goals.

Also, little or no effort has been done to enhance this practice with the theory and experience of prominent moral education approaches, like the Just Community. This project is extremely significant because it will create the necessary resources for educators to leverage the moral development potential of this institution and positively impact the lives of thousands of students in Spain and many other countries with similar institutions.

Leveraging through JC: Sobre nosotros
Image by Hansjörg Keller

Some characteristics of collaborative governance
in Colegios Mayores

This practice consists of colegiales participating in the governance of the Colegio Mayor through decision-making and stewardship tasks in a democratic way, following the mission and values of the community and contributing to its common good.

This practice dates to the very origin of Colegios Mayores in the 14th century and is one of their most notable characteristics. At that time, the involvement of colegiales in the government of the institution had two main motives: to guarantee the institutional independence of these centers from political or similar influences, and to train students to assume governance responsibilities in the future.

Since then, the legislation concerning Colegios Mayores, and their own Statutes, always include some type of governing body that incorporates colegiales in decision-making and encourages a collaborative style of governance. Nowadays, the Council of Colegios Mayores of Spain states that Colegios Mayores should encourage co-responsibility in the functioning of the colegial life, following a democratic and deliberative structure. All colegiales participate in the governance of their center, although seniority usually entails a greater responsibility and decision-making capacity.

The Director is very important in fostering this style of collaborative governance, and is included in the Colegios Mayores’ legislation, establishing that he/she is ultimately responsible for the activity and operation of the center. Candidates for this position must meet the requirements of the Statutes of each Colegio Mayor and are appointed Directors by the authorities of the University in which they are integrated. Usually, they are Faculty members or University Staff, but in rare instances they may be students. Directors help to build and maintain a sense of community inspired by the mission of the Colegio Mayor and are responsible for the group welfare. Some Directors do this by being an equal member of the community, serving as experienced consultants, powerless to enforce rules just by themselves, not inculcating a particular ideology, but inspiring respect for universal values and principles. On the other hand, other Directors constitute themselves as authorities who enforce norms and make decisions on their own accord without necessarily relying on the other members of the community, leaving little room for colegiales to make decisions and assume governance roles. Directors usually have a team to assist them in their tasks, called the Steering Committee, that can either be composed of senior colegiales (students or professors) or external agents hired for this purpose. 

Collaborative governance applies to virtually all issues affecting the life of the community: calendar planning, budget allocation, disciplinary matters, encouraging colegial initiative, the organization of activities, daily aspects and services provided by the Colegio Mayor, etc. It is important to emphasize that what is practiced collaboratively is not only the governance decision, but all the tasks involved in governance: meetings, drafting documents and protocols, personal conversations, accounting for responsibilities, leading teams of people, correcting faults, or preparing reports, among others.

Participation in the governance of the community is accomplished through a series of structures that can be grouped into three categories: the Colegial Council, the Decanato, and the committees. First, the Colegial Council is the higher organ of governance participation, which consists of a meeting celebrated with a certain frequency (weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly) in which colegiales discuss and debate issues concerning community life, proposing and choosing solutions in a democratic way. Some Colegios Mayores include all colegiales in the Colegial Council, while others determine their level of participation based on their seniority. Second, the Decanato is a team, formed of three to five colegiales, chosen democratically by the Colegial Council on an annual basis. Decanato is responsible for organizing and leading the Colegial Council meetings and for organizing the third structure category: the Committees. At the beginning of each academic year, Decanato distributes colegiales into several committees in charge of assuming diverse responsibilities along the year, whether to fulfill necessary tasks for the colegial life, or to facilitate the development of colegial initiatives.

Some of the most frequent Committees are: Cultural Committee; Social service Committee; Sports Committee; Academic Committee; Celebrations Committee; Order Committee; Professional Committee; Chaplaincy Committee; Relationships Committee; etc.gobi

Leveraging through JC: Sobre...
Children Reading the Holy Bible_edited.jpg

Do you know the Just Community approach to education?

The Just Community approach represents Kohlberg's most mature theory of moral education and has been the subject of intense research since 1975. Although Kohlberg initially recommended the discussion of moral dilemmas as a means of promoting moral development, he envisaged a far more radical and comprehensive approach. Inspired by a kibbutz school that successfully combined democratic and collectivist values, Kohlberg and his colleagues initiated a series of experimental programmes in public high schools. Evaluation of these programmes indicates that they establish cultures conducive to the development of socio‐moral reasoning and action.

Leveraging through JC: About

The activities/outputs proposed to achieve this are:

Data Gathering Meeting

Survey for Directors

Make a report

Reunión en línea
Image by Scott Graham
Image by Markus Spiske

2022 May

Organize an online Data Gathering Meeting (DGM) with representatives of Colegios Mayores and similar European Colleges to discuss and gather documentation on collaborative governance developed after 2010.

2022 November

The results of the DMG will help to design and apply a survey for Directors of Colegios Mayores to gather data of the actual implementation of collaborative governance practices.

2023 January

Analyze these data in order to find how the Just Community approach can inform this practice to improve its moral development potential.

Elaborate a guide

International Symposium

Publish an article

Plan de estrategia de juego
Asian woman having an online meeting on laptop
Researching and Writing

2023 September

Elaborate a guide, in at least Spanish and English, with the fundamental prescriptions of the Just Community approach theory to design, implement, and self-assess collaborative governance practices.

2023 December

Organize an International Online Symposium (IOS) to present the guide and make it known to the network Colegios Mayores and to representatives of similar institutions in other European countries.

2024 January

Submit at least one peer-reviewed article.

Leveraging through JC: Características

Expected middle and long-term outcomes and impact

Organizational improvement and self-assessment

Colegios Mayores will use the guide for organizational improvement and self-assessment, creating data to guide self-improvement efforts and to help researchers identify successful practices and experiences. After one or two years following the guidelines, each Colegio Mayor should be able to observe improvements in the moral development of the members of their community.

Leadership training course

The project’s team will develop a leadership training course for Directors of Colegios Mayores to help them acquire the development and knowledge necessary to lead the transformation of their communities following the Just Community approach.

Inspire policy making

The project results will inspire policy making, providing strong proof to recognize the educational potential of Colegios Mayores for moral development in higher education and guidelines to design, implement and self-assess collaborative governance initiatives.

Continuing convenings of participating Colegios Mayores

Continuing convenings of participating Colegios Mayores to keep discussing and sharing experiences on collaborative governance and/or other practices implemented in these centers to promote moral development.

Leveraging through JC: Proyectos
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