Spanish battle over Elche site

May 9, 1997

THE BATTLE over the creation of a new university in south-western Spain is intensifying as the University of Alicante and the socialist opposition have both decided to launch appeals against the project and the form it is to take.

The plan for a university in the Valencian town of Elche has succeeded in uniting all the Spanish rectors in their opposition to the scheme.

It is also prompting questions about the way in which the country's top higher education body, the university council, should be run.

Last year the regional government unveiled its scheme for setting up a new university in Elche, to be known as the Miguel Hernandez University.

While neighbouring Alicante University favours the new institution, it totally disagrees with the regional authority's plans to transfer its own prestigious faculty of medicine and the department of statistics to Elche.

"The project has no scientific or academic justification," says Professor Andres Pedreno, the rector of Alicante. He believes it will do nothing to improve the provision of higher education in the region.

Thirty Spanish universities have sent letters of support and the Conference of Spanish University Rectors (CRUE) is unanimously backing Alicante's stance.

Carmen Martorell, director general of universities for the regional government, expressed "surprise" at the rectors' reactions.

She said that most new universities created in Spain in recent years have been based on parts of already-existing institutions.

Under Spain's decentralised political structure, power over education has been gradually transferred to 17 regional governments during the past 11 years. Spanish law gives these bodies power over planning and funding, but the principle of university autonomy is also enshrined in the 1978 constitution.

The Elche conflict has become a test case of exactly where the limits lie.

Professor Pedreno thinks that, should Elche proceed in its present form, "it would create a very dangerous precedent to the solidity and credibility of Spain's universities".

Ms Martorell believes the rectors are exceeding their powers and that the matter does not constitute an attack on university autonomy but rather "a lack of respect for our regional autonomy".

The CRUE has repeatedly requested a debate on Elche in the plenary session at the university council, nominally only a consultative body, but in practice highly influential in shaping policy.

The minister of education, and university council head, Esperanza Aguirre, initially refused, saying that by law the Valencian government should decide.

When Mrs Aguirre did finally agree to a debate at a recent council meeting in Pamplona, a motion supporting the University of Alicante was carried by the votes of 42 rectors and three regional government representatives.

For many rectors, the dispute has gone beyond Elche to become a question of how higher education is governed in Spain.

Currently, the university council is divided into two committees - academic, comprising the rectors, and co-ordination and planning, staffed by government officials.

Many feel this dual structure leads to the polarisation of attitudes with the conflict over Elche a case in point.

"It makes you wonder what kind of organisation this is, where there is no common vision?" says Carles Sola, President of CRUE. "We need a mechanism to resolve the disparity of criteria."

The decentralisation of higher education powers has made it harder for the university council to reach a consensus. "When the council was set up in 1984, there were 20 state universities and just one government," says Enric Argullol, rector of the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

"Today there are around 50 state universities, 15 private ones, 17 regional governments and one central government."

He believes reforms of the university council to take this new reality into account are "urgent".

There is also evidence that rectors feel their views are being side-lined.

Professor Sola points to three recent examples - Elche, the introduction of new veterinary science curricula at the Polytechnic University of Valencia and the creation of a private university in Segovia, where the rectors' recommendations have been ignored by the council.

Earlier this year, Francisco Michavila, a former rector of Jaume University in Castell"n, resigned from his post as secretary general of the council.

Professor Michavila, who was appointed to the council by the previous socialist administration, felt his work was not being supported in government circles.

While he has stated publicly his resignation has nothing to do with the conflict over Elche, his departure can only be seen as another sign of a widening breach between the Spanish government and university leaders.

The law establishing the new university at Elche was passed by the Valencian Parliament last December but the appeals could bring the whole process to a halt once more.

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