Busy bishops use Vatican loophole to found colleges

July 18, 1997

Private universities are labouring against opposition, reports Rebecca Warden from Barcelona

THE so-called bishops' universities are the latest private education ventures to hit the headlines. Two religious foundations, lead by the Bishop of Cartagena and the former Bishop of Avila, are busy setting up two new Catholic universities in the cities of Murcia and Avila.

Both believe that a little-known agreement between the Spanish state and the Vatican dating back to 1979 gives the Catholic Church the power to found universities. Critics claim this is a ruse to get official recognition without complying with minimum standards.

Juan Jose Badiola, rector of the University of Zaragoza, has warned of the dangers of Spanish universities becoming "third world institutions". In the ensuing debate, the central government's council of state has now been called in to decide on the legality of this approach. Jose Mendoza, president of the San Antonio Foundation, professes he is surprised and dismayed at the furore over the university, intended to open to students in October this year.

He sees the project as complementary to state provision and denies any wish to cut corners or escape supervision by the regional authorities. "We are perfectly willing to comply with regional government requirements," he says. "All we are asking is that the agreement between the Spanish state and the Catholic Church be respected."

Reports from the ministry of justice support this theory, according to Mr Mendoza. The university is already advertising its services and has several hundred students interested.

The proposed Catholic university in Avila enjoys considerable support from politicians of the ruling right-wing Popular Party. In Murcia, although the regional government is run by the same party, it has placed full-page advertisements in the local press to disassociate itself from the affair.

Francisco Esquembre, director general of universities in Murcia's regional government, says: "We are extremely concerned at the fact that there are no guarantees the courses they are planning to teach will lead to recognised qualifications."

He says that, according to Spanish law, issues such as planning the provision of higher education and policing standards are clearly the competence of regional government and that this move by the Catholic Church is an "invasion of these powers".

"The church is allowed to create centres of regional instruction for teaching theology, for instance," he says, "but now they have extended this to mean any degree".

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