SPANISH education minister Esperanza Aguirre has sacked one of her right-hand men, Fernando Tejerina, the secretary of state for universities, research and development.
Her decision, stemming from deep disagreements over key areas of policy, has set off a chain reaction, causing three more top education officials to resign. A replacement, Manuel Jesus Gonzalez, has been swiftly appointed, but some academics fear a more hard-line approach from the ministry could damage relations between a rightwing government and usually progressive state universities, threatening much-needed reform.
A university lecturer from Valladolid, Professor Tejerina was appointed in May 1996 on the recommendation of prime minister Jose Maria Aznar to counterbalance the ultra-liberal Mrs Aguirre. Josep Ferrer, professor of applied mathematics at the Polytechnic University of Catalan, defines the former minister's role as a "bridge" - Mr Aznar wished "to avoid open confrontation between universities and the ministry".
A heavy workload awaited him, including reforms to the status of Spain's small army of temporary lecturers, postgraduate studies, university access, changes to new curricula and management structures. But Professor Tejerina found his proposals for change systematically blocked and became increasingly isolated.
The first signs of trouble came last April when Francisco Michavila, secretary general of the university council, resigned in protest at the slow pace of reform. The final straw was in June when Professor Tejerina's negotiations with the treasury to boost university funding in return for accepting changes to management structures were publicly sabotaged by Mrs Aguirre.
In a speech carefully timed to upstage presentation of the proposals to rectors, Mrs Aguirre announced "there will be no sweets to help the medicine go down". From then on, Professor Tejerina's departure became a matter of time and the only question was whether he would jump, or be pushed.
A ministry spokesman described the sacking as "a hand-over, designed to make way for changes in university policy". But Mrs Aguirre is believed to have seen Professor Tejerina, for nine years rector of the University of Valladolid, as being too close to the academic community. During the swearing-in ceremony for his successor, she pointedly remarked that while rectors should "express their suggestions and concerns", it is "up to the government to provide the political direction and drive for university reforms".
On his first day back teaching, Professor Tejerina was unwilling to comment on the reasons for his abrupt departure. "I am more interested in what the future holds," he said.
"I think it is simply because the political line of his proposals didn't fit in with the minister's ideas," said Antoni Caparros, rector of the University of Barcelona. The rectors are generally sad to see him go, but none denied suggestions that he acted as their mouthpiece. An El Pais editorial described the sacking as evidence of the growing influence of rightwing politicians linked to Opus Dei within the ministry and criticised Mrs Aguirre for her "authoritarian" approach.
The new secretary of state, economist Manuel Gonzales, is believed to be more in tune with the thinking of Mrs Aguirre, a fervent Margaret Thatcher admirer.
As he begins meeting with the university establishment, the rectors' attitude is wait and see. "There is no reason for a confrontation between the government and the rectors," said Saturnino de la Plaza, rector of the Polytechnic University of Madrid and vice president of the Spanish Conference of Rectors, "but if we do not agree, we will distance ourselves".