In a country still reeling from a massive police operation in October against corruption, and in a region beset by multiple fraud scandals, the illegal closure of a university’s physics programme might seem small beer.
But observers have suggested that the long and surreal story of the fall, rise and fall again of physics at the University of Vigo’s Ourense campus is illustrative of the problems that blight Spanish higher education and drag down its international performance.
The Galician institution’s physics programme opened only in 1995, after physicists prevailed in a tug of war with other academics who wanted to set up a geology programme instead. But by 2009, it was closed down by the dean of Ourense’s Faculty of Science, Juan Carlos Mejuto Fernández, who had publicly and repeatedly clashed with physicists.
As justification for the closure of Vigo’s physics programme, it was argued that student enrolment was low and that the space it occupied would be better used for a new programme in environmental science.
However, a source within the Faculty of Science said that enrolment numbers in some other science programmes were even lower than in physics, both in Ourense and elsewhere in Galicia.
Physicists noisily protested, and the Vigo programme received numerous letters of support from peers around the world – including Nobel laureates – and 15,000 signatures were collected. They also launched a legal challenge, on the grounds that university regulations stipulated that the closure decision should have been taken by a committee of physicists, rather than of the entire science faculty.
The level of bitterness was illustrated by the public suggestion – reported by La Voz de Galicia – by the physicists’ spokesman, Claudio Cerdeiriña, that someone within the faculty might have been responsible for the lump of concrete thrown through his car window soon after the closure decision was announced. That allegation was denied as “nonsense” by Pedro Antonio Araújo Nespereira, a former PhD student of Professor Mejuto who had just succeeded him as dean.
The physicists’ legal battle was finally won in the Supreme Court of Galicia in February 2012.
In order to avoid opposition from the nearby University of Santiago de Compostela, which was already offering a five-year degree in physics, the Ourense physicists announced that their restored programme would focus on a kind of applied physics called engineering physics. The subject is common at US institutions, such as Princeton and Stanford universities, and has also been established at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia since 2011.
However, Professor Araújo refused to summon the panel that was required to approve the proposed new curriculum, prompting the physicists to threaten further legal action, according to a report in La Voz. THE’s source claimed that Professor Araújo’s obstruction set back the launch of the new programme by a year.
Meanwhile, in a Facebook posting last November, Professor Mejuto condemned engineering physics, saying that anyone studying it should expect neither professional accreditation nor job prospects.
Nevertheless, in January, Galicia’s ministry of education approved the return of physics. Vigo confirmed it would offer 45 places in engineering physics in 2014-15 and Professor Cerdeiriña told the press it was “almost 100 per cent certain” that classes would begin in September.
The only remaining hurdle was approval of the new curriculum by the regional government’s higher education quality assurance body, known by the acronym ACSUG, which had never yet overturned a decision by the regional government.
However, the opponents of physics did not give up. Engineering physics was excluded from a presentation by Professor Araújo to prospective students at the Ourense campus. And after Professor Cerdeiriña went to a school to talk about engineering physics, he was investigated to check whether he had used faculty money to fund the trip (he had not).
Meanwhile, Professor Mejuto’s arguments regarding the uselessness of engineering physics were closely echoed by the Galician Association of Mechanical Engineers (ICOIIG), whose spokesman told the press that students would falsely assume they were training to be engineers. Meanwhile, its national affiliate (CGCOII)took to the courts to try to shut down engineering physics in Catalonia too.
And then, in July, ACSUG rejected the engineering physics curriculum, for reasons that also bore distinct similarities to Professor Mejuto’s objections. In response, the Galician education ministry withdrew its endorsement of physics’ return to Ourense. ACSUG’s verdict was confirmed in October by its affiliate body in Spain’s national government, which agreed that “confusion” would be caused by naming a science degree an engineering degree.
Galicia’s education minister and former Ourense dean, Jesús Vázquez Abad, denied any involvement in ACSUG’s decision, or in the original decision to close the physics department – which, he said, was a matter for the university.
The last physics students in Ourense graduated last summer and although the campus’ 20 physicists have secure tenure (as public employees they cannot easily be dismissed) they remain deeply unhappy and are contemplating their next move. Street protests are planned ahead of the December deadline for the university to submit a revised engineering physics curriculum to the regional government.
But hopes are slim and the physicists have called on Mr Vázquez and Vigo’s rector, Salustiano Mato, to resign and have threatened further legal action, including criminal proceedings, against those they see as responsible for the death of physics.
In response to requests for comment from Professor Mejuto and Professor Araújo, Virxilio Rodríguez Vázquez, vice-rector of Vigo’s Ourense campus, said he did not rule out opening in Ourense “a new branch of engineering” that does not duplicate offerings at other Galician universities and that “takes advantage of existing human and material resources”. But it seems unlikely that it will be engineering physics.
“Having a court order in our favour has not meant anything in practice,” THE’s source said.
“Unfortunately, given the wider problems involving public officials at all levels in Spain, the illegal closure of a physics programme is not of interest to most people. But unless due process is followed in Spanish universities, the country’s best academics will continue to go abroad.”