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Catalan academics have sometimes pointed to the strong performance of the region’s universities relative to the rest of Spain as a powerful argument for independence.
But how do Catalonia’s higher education institutions compare with others in the world and could they stand on their own two feet as a distinct university system?
Data from Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings, although restricted to the global research elite, does suggest that the region punches well above its weight.
For instance, average scores for citation impact – the measure of research quality in the rankings – put Catalonian universities third in the world after the Netherlands and Sweden.
To a large extent, this does reflect the fact that Catalonia (and the Netherlands and Sweden) have a relatively small overall number of research institutions that all perform well on this measure. Bigger higher education nations such as the US, UK and Germany have lower averages because they have a longer “tail” of universities further down the ranking.
However, it does demonstrate that Catalonian universities must be doing something right, and the contrast with the rest of Spain is sobering.
A potentially fairer comparison is to take the citation score average for those with at least five but less than 10 universities in the full ranking (Catalonia has five). Here, the region comes top in the world, suggesting again that there is substance to Catalan academics’ claims that its universities excel on research performance.
Of course, citation impact is just an element of the rankings: in overall terms Catalonia has only two universities in the top 200, one placed between 201 to 250, and two in the 401-500 band.
Looking at scores in the four other “pillars” that make up the ranking shows a much more modest performance for Catalonia, while for industry income it is way down the list with an average score of 38 out of 100.
However, on every measure it still scores better than the rest of Spain and given there is evidence that research performance can eventually drive worldwide recognition for universities, it is no surprise that Catalonian higher education is keen to fend for itself.