Catalan protests spark debate over role of universities

Barcelona academic says universities should take more neutral stance, but exiled scholar says Spain’s actions ‘undermine’ European values

November 6, 2019
Catalan protest
Source: Getty

An academic has urged Catalan universities to become more neutral spaces in the region’s independence movement to help find a way out of polarisation and conflict.

Last month, senates at Catalonia’s public universities separately approved a manifesto rejecting the sentences of the Catalan political leaders and the “judicialisation of politics”.

It follows the Spanish Supreme Court’s decision to jail nine Catalan separatist leaders for between nine and 13 years, which resulted in violent clashes between riot police and protesters.

Groups of students have also blocked campuses after the Student Union of the Catalan Countries called for an indefinite strike in response to the sentences and police conduct.

Margarita León, senior research fellow at the Institute of Government and Public Policies at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, said the language of the manifesto was “hugely political”, referencing “political prisoners, people in exile and the right of self-determination”.

“It’s the language of the pro-independence forces,” she said.

Professor León said universities should be “autonomous from political forces” and places where “people think critically”. It was “a bit of a shame”, she continued, that they had aligned so strongly with one side of the debate.

“We missed this opportunity to place the university in a place where we can send some kind of message to both sides,” she said.

“There is such a need for finding a space for dialogue where the different sides meet…That has to come from people who are not on the main front of political forces. In that sense, high-profile academics could play a role if they are not directly part of political parties. Universities could also try to find possible ways forward.”

Professor León said that if “different voices are heard” and Catalan universities reposition themselves as a “neutral terrain”, higher education institutions could have a role to play in the debate.

“If that doesn’t happen and they are simply aligning to the pro-independence forces, then they are just another public institution in Catalonia where simply there is no divergence,” she said.

“Somehow we are at a dead end. We can’t see a way out, and that’s a huge problem.”

However, Clara Ponsati, professor in the School of Economics and Finance at the University of St Andrews and a former Catalan government minister, said that universities in the region were composed of “free citizens” who have “freedom of expression”. Furthermore, she added, university senates were elected bodies that voted to sign the manifesto.

Professor Ponsati fled from Spain after the rejection of the Catalan declaration of independence in 2017 and has since twice been issued with arrest warrants, which were later withdrawn. It is understood that Spain’s public prosecution service is about to demand a reactivation of the international arrest warrant against her.

Professor Ponsati said it was “quite worrying” that the “establishment in Brussels, in the European capital, is silent about what is going on in Spain right now”.

When asked whether universities should be responding, she said that “in general, people who call themselves democrats should be speaking out”.

“What’s going on in Catalonia is going on inside the European Union, and it’s undermining the very basis of the EU…I don’t think civil rights are assured anywhere in Europe if this goes on and nobody puts a stop to it.”

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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