UK is top study abroad destination for Spaniards

Could it be the famed fish and chips, the daily drizzle or the Mr Darcy effect? Great Britain is the destination of choice for Spanish students, a new study has revealed.

In the first such study of its kind, the Survey on International Mobility by Spain’s office of national statistics (INE) has questioned thousands of young people on whether they have ever studied abroad.

By far the most popular destination for young Spaniards was the United Kingdom, with 14.1 percent of all study abroad students foregoing the Spanish sunshine for rain soaked Blighty.  

Dr Carlos Conde Solares, the director of Northumbria University’s Modern Languages department who himself came to the UK to study as part of the Erasmus programme in 2003, told The Local that attitudes had shifted considerably in Spain when it came to Modern Languages.

"Traditionally Spaniards had a lower level of language exposure than most of their European counterparts and French tended to be the language of choice, but that has changed dramatically in the past few decades."

Bibiana Aído, who went on to be Spain’s youngest serving member of parliament as Equality minister in 2008, studied at Northumbria University, an example of how younger Spaniards have been embracing both studying abroad and foreign languages, especially compared to older generations (among them Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy). 

"The Spanish university system is heavily subsidized and much cheaper for students than the British one, so access is relatively easy financially, but employability rates for most graduates are low," Solares told The Local. "Studying in the UK turns students into "global graduates", expanding their employment and networking horizons. It also gives them a distinctive life experience."

For Diego Sierra, who spent an Erasmus year studying Electrical Engineering at Sheffield University in northern England, fluency in English is a key skill nowadays and a big draw for Spanish students to the UK:

"Being able to prove to potential employers that you have been able to successfully live and study in the UK for a long period will always be significant," he told The Local.

"If you are already used to the Spanish university system, it won’t be hard for you to adapt to the British one; their methodology is much more efficient and you’ll learn double what you would in Spain," he added.

For Dr Santiago Fouz-Hernández, senior lecturer in Spanish cinema at Durham University, who also took part in an Erasmus exchange in London as a student, there are also cultural motivations.

"There is the obvious attraction of a magnificent literary tradition with universal appeal, as well pop and rock music," he told The Local, "In my day film adaptations of E M Forster or Jane Austen made the UK appear like a little paradise".

But he admits that because of globalization, there is probably less culture shock nowadays than when he came to the UK to study in the early 90s:

"When I coordinated Erasmus for Durham University I noticed the culture shock of students going both ways became less and less pronounced over time."

While the United Kingdom was top choice for young Spaniards studying abroad, the overall figures are still relatively low: only 6.7 percent of 18 to 34 year-olds, or 578,000 people, have spent time studying outside of Spain according to the study, which questioned 19,000 18 to 34 year-olds.

After the United Kingdom, the next most popular destinations were Italy (12.7 percent), France (10.3 percent) and Germany (9.7 percent).

Spanish women are far more likely to study abroad than Spanish men: 233,000 men studied abroad compared to 344,800 Spanish women, while 62 percent of those who had studied abroad did so for over six months.

Language courses

When it comes to the number of Spaniards taking language courses abroad, women beat men yet again. Out of the 1.1 million Spaniards between the ages of 18 and 34 who had taken a language course abroad, 700,000 were women and 400,000 were men.

English is by far the most popular language, with 47 percent of young Spaniards studying language courses in the UK, followed by 18 percent in Ireland and 10.9 percent in the United States. 

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EXPLAINED: How Spain will make it easier for students to graduate

The Spanish government has passed a new decree which will allow secondary and sixth form students to graduate and receive their qualifications, even if they have failed some subjects.

Spain is changing its education rules
There will also be no re-sitting of exams at Spanish secondary schools. Photo: CESAR MANSO / AFP

The Spanish government approved on Tuesday, November 16th a new Royal Decree which gives instructions to teachers to change the way they grade their students for the rest of the school year of 2021/2022 and 2022/2023.

Education in Spain is compulsory for all those from ages 6 to 16. The Spanish education system is made up of primary and secondary schools. Secondary school is referred to as ESO and students receive a Título de Graduado Educación Secundaria Obligatoria (Title of Graduation from Obligatory Secondary School Education). This is the last four years of compulsory education, up until age 16, and is similar to GCSEs in the UK.

After age 16, Spanish students can go on to study for the optional Bachillerato for the next two years up until age 18. This is equivalent to A-levels in the UK and is needed if the student wants to attend university. 

The new rules apply to the ESO and Bachillerato qualifications. In primary education, there were no specific qualifications or failure limits and this is the same in the new decree too. 

What is changing?

  • Before, students studying for the ESO were allowed to pass each year only if they did not have more than three failed subjects, but now with the new decree, there is no limit.
  • There will also be no re-sitting of exams in ESO.
  • In order to graduate with the ESO qualification at age 16, students could still graduate even if they had up to two failed subjects, however now there is no limit in the number of failed subjects allowed to graduate. 
  • In order to pass each year of the Bachillerato, students could still move on if they had up to two failed subjects. This will stay the same in the new decree too. 
  • In order to graduate with the Bachillerato qualification before, students had to pass all subjects and exams, but now one failed subject is allowed. 
  • Students will also be able to sit the Selectividad, which are the Spanish university admission tests if they have failed some of their Bachillerato (sixth form) school subjects.
  • For the first time in history, students with special needs who have had significant curricular adaptations and have not studied the minimum requirement for other students will also be able to receive their high school qualifications.

READ ALSO: Why Spain is failing in maths and science teaching

How will it be decided if students can graduate?

The text presented to the Council of Ministers by Pilar Alegría, the Spanish Minister of Education states that the decision on whether or not a student passes secondary education will be decided on by each board of the school or institution at the end of the school year.

It is the teaching team “who is given the ultimate responsibility for the decision on the promotion and qualification of students” she stated. It will be the teachers who have to make the decision after assessing whether the student “has reached the appropriate degree of acquisition of the corresponding skills”. 

This means that there will no longer be specific requirements to graduate high school and that the parameters for passing will be different for each institution.   

Why have the rules changed?

The new measures are designed to avoid students repeating years and improve graduation statistics.

According to the latest statistics, out of the countries in the EU in 2020, 79 percent of the population between 25 and 64 years old had graduated Secondary Education or higher and Spain is around 16.1 points below this average. 

Pilar Alegría said that 30 percent of 15-year-old students have repeated a year at least once and “dropout rates are increased by this percentage of students”. 

That is why we are committed to a system “based on trust in teachers”, “continuous evaluation” and “collaborative work by teaching teams”. She has assured that “the culture of effort does not run any risk with this new norm. An effort based on motivation is better than one based on punishment”.  

READ ALSO: Spain passes contested education bill

Are all regions on board with the new rules?

Madrid, Andalusia, Galicia, Castilla y León and Murcia strongly oppose the new rules because they “lower the requirement” and “unsettle the teachers”. 

The five regions complain that the royal decree changes the rules of the game in the middle of the course since the students have started the academic year with a particular curriculum and specific criteria in order to pass it. 


“Within our powers, while respecting the law, we are going to try to prevent the royal decree from being applied, as we consider that it is a direct attack on one of the pillars of the Madrid educational system, as is the merit and the effort of the students “, said sources from the Department of Education of the Community of Madrid.


The education authorities in Galicia said that they will also “explore any legal possibility that allows for preserving the culture of effort and quality as signs of identity”.

Castilla y León

The education departments in Castilla y León said that for their part, they “will make sure that the curricular development and the norms of promotion and qualification are the least harmful”.


“Although the norm establishes that the Baccalaureate degree can be obtained with a failed subject, we understand that it does not make sense because all subjects contribute to the acquisition of the necessary competencies,” said the education authorities in Andalusia.


Murcia is also not in favor of the royal decree and denounces “the improvisation of the Pedro Sánchez government and the lack of legal security for the decisions that have been taken”.   

Unions and Associations

Teachers’ unions such as Csif or Anpe or associations such as Concapa or Cofapa warn that more students are going to arrive less prepared for the next level of education, where the problem will explode. 

These regions argue that this new system will leave a lot of grey areas because teachers’ criteria can be very subjective. The elimination of make-up exams is also causing confusion because “they give another opportunity for students to pass based on their effort and ability”. 

The rest of the regions, on the other hand, were in favor of eliminating the need to re-sit exams because they believe that the evaluation should be “continuous” and the student should not risk everything for a single exam.