Oct 16, 2017 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Did he or did he not declare independence for Catalonia? That is the question Spanish interior minister Juan Ignacio Zoido had asked Catalan president Carles Puigdemont to clarify by this morning. Instead, as the deadline loomed, Puigdemont responded by suggesting a negotiation period of two months. Now the status of Catalonia remains uncertain, though it is thought that the autonomous region will have until Thursday to withdraw an independence declaration. After that, it is likely that the Spanish government would move towards revoking Catalonia’s autonomy and installing direct rule. 

Obviously, a lot is riding on Puigdemont’s response. One group paying careful attention to the announcement? Students. Here’s a closer look at what the Catalonian political crisis means for higher education.

New Independence, New Questions

Earlier this month, 2.26 million Catalans -- 90 percent of the voters who turned out for the symbolic referendum -- chose independence over remaining a part of Spain.

University students all over the world have long been known for their activism, and the Catalonian controversy has been no different: High school and university students stood front and center in pro-separatist demonstrations. As one 16-year-old told AFP as reported by MSN, “The majority of young people are separatists, and if they weren’t they have become separatist after seeing what Spain has done in recent weeks.”

And yet while the vast majority of Catalan students seem strongly in favor of secession -- or at the least in favor of having a voice, according to The Washington Post -- many ambiguities remain regarding what will happen if Catalonia follows through and becomes an independent state. From whether Catalonia would remain in the EU to the future of Erasmus in the conflicted region, these questions -- and their answers -- will have a direct impact on students and universities in Catalan.

The impact is not limited to Catalans, however. For Catalan Spaniards, independence may mean the need to leave their homelands. One young man recently told BBC.com, “This is the final crash. I will have to leave Catalonia if it happens.”

Nor are the implications of independence exclusive to students. Researchers, too, are caught up in the controversy. Says Science magazine of the divide, “Nationalists trust that Catalan science would thrive in a nimbler, independent state of 7.5 million people and become a beacon of a new, progressive republic. Others fear that the secession would plunge science into isolating uncertainty, cut access to essential funding streams and networks, and spark a brain drain.”

The Outlook for Academia

Despite the ongoing uncertainty about how, exactly, independence would impact higher education, many stakeholders are optimistic about an independent Catalonia for universities, as recently reported by Times Higher Education. Catalan education minister Clara Ponsati recently suggested that succession would bring the opportunity to “shake up” the higher education sector in several ways, including an increase in international recruitment of faculty, the elimination of underperforming faculty, and the ability to take on debt toward a “more flexible system” positioned for “competition and excellence.” Her ultimate assertion? “In the medium term, once we negotiate an independence agreement with Spain, they [Catalan universities] will have a very bright future,” she said.

But independence isn’t an automatic win for academia, contend others. Explains Nature, “Many scientists believe that an independent Catalonia could change the scientific landscape even more fundamentally, not least by releasing universities from old-fashioned and inflexible national laws. Yet in the event of independence, Catalonia would automatically leave the European Union, and Spain would make sure it never got back in. That would weaken the region’s research. For one thing, it would no longer be allowed to host those plentiful ERC grants.”

Meanwhile, certain things would remain assured, such as exchange programs and EU funding. Which explains why at least some young people favor staying in Spain. One 27-year-old told AFP, “I prefer to remain with what is known than with what will come, because it could be very good or very bad.”

One last thing to keep in mind? Whatever the outcome, there’s a long road to recovery ahead. Proposes Nature, “The political uncertainty is likely to escalate whatever the result. And this is damaging. The independence debate has distracted Catalonian politicians from other issues, including science. Frozen budgets threaten the world-class status of the institutes that the region has so carefully built up — and that it will need, whatever political solution emerges.”

 

 

 

 

 

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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