Techno age for La Laguna

November 28, 1997

Universities in the Canary Islands have learned the benefits of working together. Rebecca Warden reports

The University of La Laguna was founded in 1792. Traditionally orientated towards humanities and science, it has a solid reputation in marine biology and astrophysics via its links with the Canaries Institute of Astrophysics.

Since Las Palmas became independent, La Laguna has been slowly completing the range of degrees on offer. "From being totally complementary universities, we are becoming competitors," says rector Mat!as L"pez.

La Laguna plans to introduce engineering by 2004 whereas Las Palmas has faculties of law and medicine, specialities already provided by its neighbour on Tenerife.

Professor L"pez admits that some Tenerife academics still see this as unnecessary duplication, but he believes that the Canaries' 50,000 students cannot be accommodated in one institution.

Since celebrating its bicentenary in 1992, La Laguna has been busy modernising. New degrees that Professor L"pez describes as "more in tune with our surroundings", such as food science, electrical engineering and tourism, have been introduced.

A second project, under the stewardship of communications and computing director Felix Herrera, will bring the university on-line early next year by linking La Laguna's three campuses to an integrated local area network.

By March, academics, administrative staff and 24,000 students will have high-speed Internet access and email services. Personalised smartcards will act as ID, library cards and will give access to buildings and laboratories outside working hours. Students may also pay for meals, drinks and photocopies with their cards, and under an agreement with the scheme's sponsor, a Spanish bank, may use it as a credit card or to check their exam results via autobanks.

Dr Herrera admits that La Laguna has been slow to "jump on the technology train", but believes that communications technology is especially significant for an island university. "It makes you think: I can have access to all the information I need, so I am really not so far away," he says.

Victor Martin, director of the bio-organics institute, believes communication problems on Tenerife have diminished anyway. Whereas before he would have to order materials weeks in advance, they can now be supplied in a matter of days.

His institute brings together teams working on projects such as developing vegetable hormones to combat disease in banana plants and isolating the toxins in "red tides" - micro-organisms that enter the food chain via molluscs and are potentially fatal for humans.

For Professor Martin, the biggest problem researchers in his field face stems from the lack of a strong industrial base in the local economy. "Food sciences such as ours produce trained personnel who should be absorbed by industry," he says. "But with little industry on the Canaries, this absorption does not happen."

Seeing few job opportunities, students are unwilling to enrol for doctorates and the government is reluctant to fund them, so researchers find a lack of young trainees to make up their teams.

Next week: Las Palmas

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