3/30/23 · Institutional

"The UOC can become a driving force for change in higher education in Europe"

Josep A. Planell

Josep A. Planell

Josep A. Planell, UOC's president

 

This March sees President Josep A. Planell's 10-year term in office at the head of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) come to end. In this interview, he takes stock of the main milestones of his presidency, the political issues affecting the university, which may prove key in the coming years, and exciting and promising challenges that lie ahed, including OpenEU - a proposal for an open European university led by the UOC in partnership with Europe's leading distance universities, which could represent a historic and decisive turning point for the UOC and for the digital transformation of higher education in Europe. On 13 April, he will hand over to the new president, Àngels Fitó.

 

This March sees President Josep A. Planell's 10-year term in office at the head of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) come to end. In this interview, he takes stock of the main milestones of his presidency, the political issues affecting the university, which may prove key in the coming years, and exciting and promising challenges that lie ahed, including OpenEU - a proposal for an open European university led by the UOC in partnership with Europe's leading distance universities, which could represent a historic and decisive turning point for the UOC and for the digital transformation of higher education in Europe. On 13 April, he will hand over to the new president, Àngels Fitó.

His presidency's milestones

The UOC's international scope is comparable to that of any other Catalan university

President, when you took office in April 2013, you highlighted how "the UOC is a university. Plain and simple." Why?

Traditionally, there's been this stigma about distance universities and, by extension, online universities like ours being second best. This could lead people to think that, eventually, the UOC would one day become a mere technological platform for the Catalan system. And I think that this is far from what the UOC wants to be, which is to be one more university in the Catalan system, and I think we've achieved that. A university that has, what's more, achieved a position in the rankings on an equal footing with the average for Spanish and Catalan universities.

You also said that, one day, you'd like to be able to travel the world and when someone asked you "where are you from?" to be able to answer, "from the country of the UOC". Have we reached that point?

Not quite. If you ask me about the UOC's international impact, then, yes, we've achieved the figures we were looking for at the start of my term of office, with 15% of our students being "international". "International" in the sense of holding non-EU passports, but also those with a Spanish passport but living abroad. The figure for the UOC's international students stands at between 10,000 and 12,000 - so, numbers similar to those for all the students at a "physical" Catalan university, a really very high figure. And I'd also like to highlight the recognition secured by the UOC through international networks.

What are you happiest about from these 10 years at the head of the university?

It's hard to pick just one thing! But we can be proud of having become a fully accredited university, which is quite an achievement! And of having introduced a specific, differentiated academic career or of having doubled our portfolio while ensuring its quality, which has led to increased recognition abroad. We've updated a lot of technological aspects: the online classroom learning environment (or LMS), the human resources management system, the unification of the two virtual campuses (Catalan and Spanish), the migration to the cloud¿ to mention just a few! Or our efforts in research, which have led to us securing ¿10 million in project funding. All this has entailed remodelling our project management structure, rearranging the research structure...

What does having its buildings concentrated in Poblenou mean for the UOC?

Having secured a UOC campus in the 22@ district, Barcelona's (and indeed Catalonia's) leading technology district, has been quite a milestone in my term of office. The UOC used to exist in a kind of diaspora, with facilities in Poblenou, in Avinguda del Tibidabo and even in the town of Castelldefels, and bringing academic, administrative and all the research staff together was very important. Here, we have 16,000 square metres to bring together all of the university's talent. This campus includes the Interdisciplinary R&I Hub, which is also key. The Hub's multidisciplinary labs are designed to foster partnerships between research groups and to sow the seeds for the university's research in the future.

The university's political and legal context

Over the 10 years of my term of office, I will have dealt with nine different ministers

How has the political instability of recent years affected the university?

A great deal. Over the 10 years of my term of office, I will have dealt with nine different ministers. This has made us and still makes us suffer, because implementing long-term strategies requires stability. There are a number of issues associated with the university's legal status that remain unresolved, such as how the fact our being a private foundation with a public mandate affects us, and how this impacts our funding, the "programme contract" with the Catalan government or teaching staff recruitment. This political instability has meant that these issues, that were on the table at the beginning, are still there, because, with every change, we've pretty much had to start again from scratch.

And there's something that really concerns me: the university's new statutes, which we drafted in 2018, are still on the table at the Office of the Comptroller of the Government of Catalonia due to this lack of any decision as to whether or not we belong to the public sector. For example, these statutes contemplate the possibility of the University Council being able to appoint members to the Board of Trustees, which could be really important. This instability has really prevented us from progressing a lot faster on many fronts.

There's a disconnect between the UOC's public and private nature that needs resolving

So, is the UOC a public or a private university?

It's a quantum university! It depends on whether what you're doing is public or private. But, seriously now, it's a private foundation with a public mandate. The law that created the UOC already stated that it had to set "public" pricing. And, if its prices are public then it receives subsidies, subjecting it to a range of public sector regulations: procurement, accountability, etc. Some things are advantageous and others not so much. And it's this disconnect that needs resolving.

Future challenges

The UOC is the university of those who work, of diversity, of the territory

What is it that makes the UOC unique?

The UOC is the university of people who work - 80% of our students have a job. It's the university of diversity - it's a university with a large number of immigrant students, and the Spanish university with the second-highest number of students with a recognized degree of disability greater than 33%. And it's the university of the territory. That's because 20% of our students in Catalonia live in towns of less than 10,000 inhabitants. This means we have between 8,000 and 9,000 students in such towns and villages, 65% of whom are women. And these are the aspects that make us truly stand out from the other universities in the system.

What are the challenges facing the UOC right now? 

There's more than one. We need to resolve the university's economic sustainability and the subsidy from the Catalan government. We also need to address the impact of the new Law on Universities (LOSU) passed by Spain's Congress of Deputies. And we need to sort out how the labour reforms will affect us.

As a university, let's set our sights high: if OpenEU, a proposal for an open European university we've submitted to the European Commission, gets the green light, then the UOC will become a driving force for change in higher education in Europe. Every European distance university is participating in this project, which is headed by the UOC. This is really significant! All these universities have recognized the UOC's academic and administrative expertise.

But there's more! There are aspects associated with internationalization, with our uniqueness¿ I'm particularly pleased with the UOC's efforts to single out certain academic fields, such as that of creativity. The conceptual work that's been done on the Bachelor's Degree in Art, for example, with our partnership with the Museo Reina Sofía, and the Bachelor's Degree in Digital Design and Creation, makes us stand out from the rest.

Knowledge hasn't been confined to universities for some time now: it's in our businesses, our public administrations, our hospitals¿ It's everywhere

Diving a little deeper into the issue, we might well ask ourselves what the role of universities should be in the 21st century. Knowledge hasn't been confined to universities for some time now: it's also in our businesses, our public administrations, our museums, our hospitals... it's everywhere. So this turns the university into a kind of hub that, in addition to creating knowledge, connects it, transforms it and feeds it back to society. This is one of the really tough challenges of the 21st century, and one that has to be tackled with technology.

Everyone knows that the Spanish university system isn't working, but no one knows how to fix it

Given this backdrop, do you think that Spain's new law on universities (LOSU) represents an opportunity?

No. The minister himself says that the law is possible and plausible. However, what the LOSU does is to shore up the existing model for the Spanish university system, which I'd describe as "hypernormalized". The term "hypernormalization" was coined by a Russian historian to describe a Soviet system that was no longer working, but that no one knew how (or dared) to fix, and which therefore maintained the status quo for the sake of stability. Likewise, everyone knows that the Spanish university system isn't working, but no one knows how to fix it. With the LOSU, universities are calling for more flexibility and autonomy. But if everything is hypernormalized, what kind of autonomy can you have? It makes flexibility and specialization difficult. The LOSU will govern the Spanish university system for a few years more, but it doesn't represent any kind of progress.

Experiences

Student graduation ceremonies are probably the most intense events you can experience at the UOC

Foto de les graduacions de Barcelona

Tell us what you've found most surprising over the course of all these years as president.

I don't know about "surprising", but the graduation ceremonies have moved me the most. It's probably the most intense event you can experience at the UOC because you get to see how all the efforts made by those graduating (and their families!) finally come to fruition. Over 60% of our students have a family and they have to achieve a work-life balance while studying. And this is an extraordinary effort. The graduation ceremony gives a sense to everything we do. Let me tell you an anecdote.

Please do!

At a graduation ceremony in Madrid, in November 2017, when I came off the stage, a visibly emotional woman came up to me with tears in her eyes and said, "President, I'm so grateful to the UOC. I'm going to need my qualification at home because I've got five children and two of them have intellectual disabilities. I had one when I was 18 and my family said to me 'get out of this house; you'll never amount to anything in life!' But now look at me: I've got a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology, President". I mean... wow, you'd have to be made of stone not to be moved by that, wouldn't you?

And there was a student from Yemen, from our Master's Degree in Conflict, Peace and Security, who said to me at a graduation ceremony: "I've been through airstrikes, I've been in prison¿, in life, there's no shame in being poor, but there's no excuse for being ignorant." For a student to say that to you... These are moments that really move you and make you understand that the UOC's job is what it is, and it needs to continue in this direction.

However, aside from these moments with students and graduates, there's also all our staff. When I first came here I was told about, and I've been able to see for myself, the commitment, the enthusiasm, the proactivity and the feeling of belonging to the UOC. And it's really wonderful! The commitment is just unbelievable! This is something else that's impressed me about the UOC.

Plans for the future

Prof. Àngels Fitó, Vice President for Competitiveness and Employability, will be picking up the baton from you in a few days' time. Could you let us in on what advice you'd give (or might already have given) her?

I've said two things to her. First, to take her time: she's got seven years ahead of her and, although they might seem to pass quickly, I told her to take her time with the decisions she needs to make, and to build up her own project. And, secondly, that it's important to focus on the university's external policies, which is where the great challenges to be tackled lie.

Who would you like to thank now that you're coming to the end of your term of office?

Absolutely everyone! Students, teaching and administrative staff, and those with whom I've governed the university: the Executive Board, the Academic Committee, the Strategic Committee, the University Council and the Board of Trustees. Everyone with whom I've had the chance to debate and discuss things. I've been lucky enough to have been surrounded by people better than me, which has made my job really quite easy. And, because they're so good, things work out. And, as they work out, you can afford to be more ambitious. The people I've been surrounded with are extraordinarily talented and skilled, and I'd like to take this opportunity to thank them.

What are your plans for the future?

I'm not too sure, actually, because I haven't really thought about it. However, what's most important from now on is that my time, all of it, will be mine and mine alone. I'll have all the time in the world, and I'd love to do creative things for myself, for the satisfaction of creating something.

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