War of new campus

October 25, 1996

The University of Alicante and the Valencian regional government are locked in a bitter struggle over plans for a new institution in the city.

In an outbreak of open warfare, Andres Pedre$o, Alicante's rector, refused to allow Eduardo Zaplana, the regional president, to preside over the ceremony marking the opening of the new academic year.

Mr Zaplana stormed out of the university hall, followed by an entourage of 100 or so municipal and regional officials, all members of the ruling right-wing Popular party.

The dispute began over the regional government's plans to set up a new university offering degrees in 18 subjects in the town of Elche. Several faculties currently at Alicante, including the top-rated faculty of medicine, would be transferred to Elche to help consolidate the new centre of learning. The regional government intends to sink 25,000 million pesetas (Pounds 110 million) into the project over the next five years.

While Professor Pedre$o and Alicante's university council are in favour of the new institution, they dislike Mr Zaplana's blueprint and accuse him of failing to consult the region's four existing state universities. Professor Pedre$o does not believe that in its current form the new university will solve such problems as the acute overcrowding in Valencian universities.

He believes the range of degrees duplicates many already offered at Alicante, instead of providing technical qualifications not currently available in the region.

Also, he regards the sums to be invested in Elche, which double those paid by the regional government to the other universities, as "serious and incomprehensible discrimination" when overall spending is being reduced.

According to the regional government, which determines educational policy rather than the national government, the Elche project is a "decentralisation of education in the province", saving students a 30-kilometre journey to study.

Transferring medicine responds to plans for the new university to be a centre of scientific excellence. "While universities are free to organise their teaching and research activities as they see fit, investment and the economic policy of universities is a matter for the Valencian government", department of education spokesman Jose Gonsalez said.

Since the dispute became public, sides are being taken. Mr Zaplana has the support of a minority of Alicante's students, the faculty board of medicine, his own political party, and allies in the regional government and local business people. In the rector's camp are the majority of Alicante's students, staff and academics, the Conference of Spanish Rectors, the political opposition and the two main trade unions.

A total of 18 rectors have sent messages of support to Professor Pedre$o, as well as to Josep Bricall, president of the European Conference of Rectors.

Following the tense scenes at the university, the debate has become tightly politicised. In an extraordinary session of the Valencian parliament, Mr Zaplana described the rector's behaviour as the "most serious attack in recent years" on the autonomy of the Valencian regional government. Opposition critics accused the president of reducing the broader issues to a personal conflict and of bringing his supporters to the opening ceremony as a "show of strength".

Spanish rectors are more concerned at the implications for autonomy. Many fear that a dangerous precedent could be set by the government.

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