Catalan independence ‘a chance to shake up universities’

Education minister sees break from Spain as a path to more ‘competition and excellence’ in hiring, firing and leadership

October 10, 2017
Catalan flag
Source: Getty

Independence is a chance to “shake up” Catalan universities so that they can fire poorly performing academics, recruit more researchers from abroad and take on debt, according to the region’s new education minister.

Clara Ponsatí, who until July this year was director of the School of Economics and Finance at the University of St Andrews, hopes that separating from Spain will lead to major changes in how universities are run.

Speaking from Barcelona, Professor Ponsatí said that “in the medium term, once we negotiate an independence agreement with Spain, they [Catalan universities] will have a very bright future”, free of “stupid” Spanish bureaucracy.

One problem is that academics were divided into two classes: highly secure civil servants, and those on “precarious” contracts subject to “very bad labour conditions” and no opportunity to conduct research, she said.

“Once you become a civil servant...your pay is not going to change,” she said. A sizeable fraction of these entrenched academics have “[taught] the same class for the past 20 years” and are still paid the same as better-performing colleagues. “If your performance is very, very low, maybe you shouldn’t keep your job for ever,” she said.

Catalan rectors are also in Professor Ponsatí’s sights. University governance is currently “not that good”, with rectors elected by professors, she complained. “If professors are mediocre, they are not going to be that eager to have someone who...wants to promote excellence,” she said. Instead, universities should hunt for executives on the “international market”, she argued.

“Look at the present rectors of Catalan universities, check their h-indexes [a measure of how many papers a researcher has published, and how many times they have been cited]” to see if they are “high-profile academics”, Professor Ponsatí suggested. The current governance system “does not guarantee positive selection”.

“Universities still need to be shaken up,” she said.

On hiring, Professor Ponsatí argued that it is often difficult to win an academic role without a European Union passport, making it a struggle for US citizens, for example, to join Catalan universities. “We should be more welcoming” to overseas academics, she said, to compete with British universities for top researchers.

The current system also constrained Catalan universities from taking on debt, she complained.

Independence could usher in a “more flexible system” that is more open to “competition and excellence”, she added.

Catalan researchers have been struggling since mid-September with tight controls on their spending, imposed by Madrid to stop public bodies financing the region’s independence referendum. A spokesman for the University of Barcelona said that this “economic blockade” was “affecting our normal operations. For instance, we are delaying procedures [such as] payments to providers. This is unacceptable and we are appealing [to] the Spanish government to stop it.”

At the end of last month, Catalan research institutions appealed to the European Commission to respond to the restrictions, which they said were stopping them carrying out EU-funded projects.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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