By Michele Girotto
The self-determination referendum is a current hot topic in Catalonia. A reflection of this atmosphere is the pro-independence and the right to vote march that took place in Barcelona on 11 September during Catalonia’s national day. The debates surrounding the referendum are bringing forth issues of history, culture, language, legislation, economic and financial affairs, as well as education. Concentrating on the single topic of education, there have been several arguments engendered over the past years and especially in recent days, about whether an independent Catalonia would perform better in its national higher education system.
According to the president of the Vives Network of Universities, a non-profit organisation that represents and coordinates joint action in higher education, research and culture of 21 universities from 4 different European countries in the Mediterranean area, a 100% Catalan government would pay more attention to higher education, therefore he is confident that the university system would receive major economic and institutional aid. Meanwhile, concerning HEIs’ ordinary functioning, the impact of independence would be ‘very different’ throughout the Catalan university system, as it should materialise what would happen with administrative staff and faculty, which is framed under the civil service regime in each institution.
Another concern is the productivity of universities. The indicators used by U-Ranking for Spanish universities acknowledge that Catalan universities rank higher in the Spanish system, where the most productive universities achieve double the performance of universities with the worst rated results. According to a report by the BBVA Foundation (U-Ranking), public Spanish universities have not lost productivity in the years of the economic crisis. However the full picture of the consequences of the educational reforms and budget cuts is still not clear. The scientific productivity downgrade in HEIs in the future will depend on the duration of the cuts that affect the educational system, as well as the ability of universities to adapt to this situation, such as going abroad to seek for funds.
Therefore, the scenario of a hypothetical independence, according to Vives Network, would reinforce the Catalan system in the sense that the Catalan universities are well positioned in terms of research, quality and internationalisation. Catalonia is the Spanish autonomous community that attracts the highest number of international students. However the funding issue is also a concern among students and faculty. Currently, Catalonia also stands out as the Spanish community with the highest enrolment fees. The average credits fee at HEIs in Catalonia is nearly three times that of Galicia (the lowest in Spain). In the last two years, the Catalan Government has increased fees by 79.4%, compared to a national average increase of 22.1%. The Spanish government attributes these variations to the decisions of regional governments. The General Secretary of Universities, Ministry of Education, argues that the Spanish government passed a decree in 2012 which recommended that the contributions of the students did not exceed 15%, but the university autonomy allows the regional communities to determine this percentage.
The debate therefore also partly concerns how much it would really cost to study in a hypothetical independent Catalonia, and what concrete policies are foreseen in terms of enhancing excellence, quality and productivity and at the same time assuring equality access to higher education. Accordingly, Catalonia is a case that should be understood in the context of the significant level of social support that has been gained for independence, but it remains unclear what the socio-economic proposals (including educational issues) of each side (Catalan and Spanish governments) might be. The main debate is focused on the real controversy regarding whether or not to hold the referendum without having any information about the content of future policies.
SRHE member Michele Girotto is a Lecturer in Business Management in the Department of Management of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, Spain, and a research collaborator at the UNESCO Chair of Higher Education Management, specialising in strategy and management tools in higher education.