Catholics 'too free with names'

July 18, 1997

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

WHAT'S in a name? If the dispute over the Free University of Catalonia is anything to go by, the answer has to be everything. Plans to launch a private university with a strong religious bent in this north-eastern region have united the heads of Spanish universities in their opposition to the name.

Many say the choice of name flies in the face of a European tradition of centres of learning such as Berlin or Louvain's free universities that were founded precisely to defend the principle that education should be free from doctrine.

While the Free University describes its orientation as simply "Christian humanist", the institution is commonly supposed to have close links with Spain's influential economic-religious organisation, Opus Dei.

"It would be a total paradox if the university most conditioned by doctrine were to be called 'free'," says Josep Maria Pons, vice rector of institutional relations at the University of Barcelona. A report by the Catalan Interuniversity Council, which advises Catalonia's regional government and de facto education authority, voices doubts about whether the Free University's resources are sufficient to undertake quality research.

A second concern is whether the proposed organisational structure would give teaching staff sufficient independence from management to guarantee academic freedom.

The name was chosen to underline the new university's complete economic independence from the state, according to Marc Escola, secretary general of the Free University of Catalonia. He believes the state universities' opposition to the name is a cover for ulterior motives. "They are merely trying to defend their territory," he says. "They have no competition and that's a very comfortable situation to be in." Changing the name by next October, when the university's first intake of students is due to arrive would be "very difficult", he adds.

In Spain, it is regional rather than central government which approves the creation of new universities. Legislation for the Free University has still to be debated in the Catalan parliament. The debate is due to take place in September after the summer break.

The project suffered a setback in March when plans to offer medicine had to be dropped as the university's links with the proposed teaching hospital were thought to be not close enough. Jessop Font, director general of universities at the Catalan regional government, is confident that a consensus will be reached allowing the project to go ahead.

He says: "We will have to watch new universities such as this one very closely to make sure they deliver quality."

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