Two Spanish universities have separately announced within days of each other that they intend to be the first to offer virtual university courses in Spanish.
The timing of the statements reveals fierce behind-the-scenes competition and has come as a complete surprise to academics and educationists who had just returned from a conference in Madrid to share new developments in the field of virtual education.
Uned, Spain's Open University, announced at "Online Educa Madrid" - the country's first conference on virtual education and new technologies - that it was going to offer its first virtual courses to 16,000 business studies students starting in October.
With 200,000 students, Uned aims to be the biggest virtual university in Europe. The strength of its position is in its alliance with America Online, which is seeking to have greater influence among the Spanish-speaking populations in North and South America.
In the introduction to the conference, Jaime Montalvo, vice-chancellor of Uned, said that his institution expected to take the leading role in virtual university teaching in Spain and Latin America.
Oberta University (of Catalonia) then announced the creation "of the first virtual university" in the Spanish language to start in September. Oberta has teamed up with publishing house Planeta, which wants to promote its educational products in Spain and Latin America.
Gabriel Ferrater, Oberta's vice-chancellor, said: "We have broken the barriers of time and space... we are the first virtual university in the world that offers the same services as a real campus."
Oberta aims to have 40,000 students undergoing distance learning courses in Spain and Latin America by the year 2004. Only the exams, they say, will require the physical presence of the student.
The stakes are high. Latin America is viewed by both universities and their backers as a huge potential market for education and educational materials. This week, Brazil - the only Portuguese-speaking country in South America - confirmed that it intends to make Spanish a compulsory second language for schoolchildren.
Competition is also fuelled by the long rivalry between Madrid and Barcelona. Uned - because of its national brief - is viewed as being supported by the Spanish government based in Madrid, while the Oberta proposal represents the aspirations of the Catalonians for a stronger regional identity.
However, despite the tension, there are signs of hope for greater cooperation in the future. An organisation called the Association for Virtual Education and Training, established two weeks ago, may provide a meeting point for the two competitors in the medium term. The organisation seeks greater cooperation between the universities and the development of a "quality trademark for education on the internet".
The association also has an ambitious long-term plan to promote the development of what it calls a "Spanish Silicon Valley of language" between Barcelona and Madrid.
nscar Berdugo Ruiz, co-founder of the association, said: "We recognise that there is considerable competition in the Spanish academic world but we hope that the universities will recognise the value of coordinating activities and unify behind our proposal."