Private teething trouble

October 10, 1997

THREE private universities due to start up in Spain this week arefacing difficulties, with one being forced to change its name just days before launch and two more expected to be strongly criticised in a forthcoming report by the Spanish government's top advisory body, the Council of State.

Plans to call a small private university the Free University of Catalonia have caused a storm of criticism. Based in an affluent suburb of Barcelona, the university defines its orientation as "Christian humanist", but is widely believed to entertain close links with the powerful economic-religious organisation, the Opus Dei.

Many academics believe the use of this name by a doctrinaire institution goes against a European tradition of free universities set up to defend the principle of academic freedom. Furthermore, calling one university "free" implies that all the other universities are not.

Sources at the university defended the choice of name as merely indicating its independence from the state as a self-funded body.

The regional Catalan parliament approved the establishment of the university last week, so long as it changes its name. Marc Escol , secretary general of what will now be known as the International University of Catalonia, admits the last-minute name change is a setback, but is pleased to gain approval finally.

"We are glad that at last we can get on with creating a new and different kind of university," he said.

Montserrat Duch, spokesperson on universities for the Catalan Socialist parliamentary group, still has her doubts about the project, believing it has deficiencies in terms of resources for research, student-staff ratios and economic and financial viability.

The university was also forced to drop six of a planned 15 courses, including medicine. However, the international university shows no sign of repentance: full-page press advertisements strike a note of defiance, proclaiming it to be "free and open to the world".

The Catholic University of gvila is also advertising this week, although its future looks less certain than that of its Catalan counterpart. Together with the Catholic University of San Antonio in Murcia, it is the initiative of two Spanish bishops who claim a little-known 1979 agreement between the Spanish state and the Vatican gives them the right to create universities.

The Council of State report is expected to concede this point, but state that this cannot protect the institutions from complying with legal requirements for universities.

Several Spanish rectors went on record this summer to voice their concerns that allowing institutions such as gvila and Murcia to operate could be a threat tostandards.

Francisco Zurri n, vice rector of gvila, denies any intention to duck legal requirements.

He believes sections of the Spanish press are blowing these issues out of all proportion, while admitting that the row is having a negative effect on student recruitment.

Professor Zurri n says relations with the rest of the academic community are good, as professors from state universities will teach gvila's planned masters courses.

"If any rector is opposed to us, it is either out of fear of losing students or for ideological reasons," he says. "But they are in the minority."

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