Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

'If We Could Break Free, We'll R Un Even Faster'

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

'If We Could Break Free, We'll R Un Even Faster'

Article excerpt

Scholars hail Catalan independence as a way to escape Spanish bureaucracy. Ellie Bothwell writes

In September 2013, Antonio Cabrales, then professor of economics at Carlos III University of Madrid, left the country, citing Spain's stagnant university system. Two and a half years into his post as professor of economics at University College London, he told me that he stands by his decision, claiming that Spain's "fiscal situation does not look like it is going to get any better any time soon".

Many academics share Professor Cabrales' frustration with Spain's higher education climate and it has become a key argument for Catalan independence among university staff in the region.

While the Catalan separatist movement can be traced back to the mid-19th century, it has become much more prominent in recent years.

In July 2010, more than 1 million people took to the streets of Barcelona to call for greater autonomy in the Catalan region, after a constitutional court in Madrid ruled that there is no legal basis for recognising Catalonia as a nation within Spain. Since 2011, further demonstrations rallying for Catalonia to become an independent state within the European Union have taken place each year in the city on the National Day of Catalonia (11 September).

In November 2014, a non-binding referendum on independence for the region took place, instigated by Artus Mas, the regional president. More than 80 per cent of respondents opted for independence.

Just four months ago, the Catalan parliament adopted the Declaration of the Initiation of the Process of Independence of Catalonia, which starts the process to create an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic.

But what impact would Catalan independence have on higher education in the region?

Professor Cabrales said that the answer depends on how a decision is reached - whether there is mutual agreement between Spain and Catalonia or a messy divorce.

The latter could lead to "all sort of problems", he said, such as Catalonia leaving the EU and losing trade with Spain, which could result in a deteriorated economy and university system.

However, the former could enable Catalonia to "flourish", because it is a "relatively rich region", with better university management and more influential research than the rest of Spain. Professor Cabrales added that research citations per capita in Catalonia have outperformed Madrid in the past 20 years.

"This means if they were independent they could do even better things - they'd have more money and more independence to design their own system," he said. "I think that's part of the reason why many people in the Catalan universities feel like they would be better off outside Spain."

He said that Andreu Mas-Colell (pictured), former minister of economy and knowledge in Catalonia (until January 2016), was the reason for universities' improvement in the region.

Professor Mas-Colell, founder of the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics and economics professor at the city's Pompeu Fabra University, is an outspoken advocate for independence. He said that Catalonia has managed to "rise above" some of the bureaucratic challenges that have plagued Spain's universities but that institutions in the region are still "choking under the straitjacket of organisational laws". In particular, he cited the requirement for all professors in Spain to be civil servants, although others have also complained of poor professorial salaries and red tape preventing the hiring of international staff as further restrictions. …

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