Student Unrest Sweeps Across Spain

BARCELONA--Eduardo Agatângelo came to the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) from his native Angola last year under a new program to help promising students from the developing world earn Ph.D. degrees. But last month the Spanish government pulled the plug on its 3-year commitment to Agatângelo and hundreds of other students from around the world, shifting the money to target links with Latin America. The move has left many students angry at their host country and anxious about their chances of becoming scientists. "This worries me greatly," says Agatângelo, who is seeking a degree in food science. "I have no prospects to continue my Ph.D. training in Angola."

In 1998 Spain's Agency of International Collaboration (AECI) expanded a program, begun at the end of World War II, that awards competitive 3-year training grants to deserving graduate students from the developing world. The program now supports more than 1200 students from 40 countries. But last month the AECI announced that it would transfer $3.6 million from the grants program into a new entity, the Carolina Foundation, to support cultural and education programs in Latin America, including science courses for biomedical postdocs. An AECI official says the foreign grants program was too expensive and that the students, instead of returning to their home countries, were using the training as a kind of work placement program to land jobs in Spain--a characterization that the students deny. The AECI's decision means that some 900 foreign students may soon be homeward bound. Last month the agency informed first- and second-year students like Agatângelo that their training grants would be extended by 1 year. The roughly 350 students who were completing a third year without earning a Ph.D. were told that their support would end on 30 June, the last day of the academic year. The AECI said it would no longer grant extensions to allow such students to finish their degrees.

The news left students up in arms, leading to demonstrations in Barcelona and Madrid. "This situation places hundreds of researchers in a situation of economic precariousness," says Silvina van der Molen, an Argentinean who has just completed her third year of studies in ichthyology at UAB and was hoping to finish her Ph.D. next year. Faculty members have also condemned the AECI's hard line. The Spanish Council of University Rectors, representing 64 universities, criticized the disruption to the students' lives and work. Echoing that theme, officials at 11 universities in Catalonia say the decision "is harming not only the Ph.D. students but also the research institutions where they are developing their training grants and their corresponding countries."

The backlash has sent AECI officials backpedaling. Jesús Silva, the Foreign Office's director of cultural and science relations, says that the agency will now give "a few extra months" of support to third-year students on the verge of completing degrees and may give selected foreign students a few months of grant support for study in Spain. But university officials remain upset. The AECI, fumes UAB research vice chancellor Joan Antón Carbonell, is "not taking this matter seriously."

A spokesperson for the students says AECI bylaws mandate that these grants run for 3 years. But the students may have little legal recourse: Class-action lawsuits are prohibited in Spain, and individual lawsuits would be costly. Unless the AECI changes its stance, scores of embittered students will be packing their bags for home next year.

* Xavier Bosch is a science writer in Barcelona.

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