Foreign students love coming to Spain - but only for a semester or summer abroad. Few opt to complete their entire degree at a Spanish university, according to the statistics.
As a serious brain drain continues to affect Spain - its best and brightest often leaving to look for work abroad - foreign students could help to bridge the gap.
But, why are Spanish universities not attracting foreign students, and what can they do to attract more?
Dr Carlos Conde Solares, a Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Northumbria - who has experience of studying and teaching both in Spain and the UK - takes a look at what is turning students off studying in Spain, and why they should reconsider.
Lack of prestige
The main reason, is a deeply structural, cultural one: the Spanish university system lacks the international prestige of British, American or French institutions. There are of course exceptions to the rule, and some degree programmes and qualifications are highly regarded, but Spain simply doesn't have the tradition of "importing" foreign talent, in practically any discipline.
International university rankings are dominated by Anglo-Saxon institutions, and Spanish universities barely feature.
No Spanish university enjoys the prestige of Harvard University. Photo: chensiyuan/Wikimedia
Spain is seen as an attractive country to spend part of one's studies (see the spectacular figures of the exchange programmes) but not as a reliable investment in terms of obtaining a prestigious, internationally recognised qualification that will open employment doors to the global graduate.
Part of this assumption is sadly justified. The ratio of foreign staff in Spanish universities is very low. There is clear correlation between internationalisation of staff and that of the student body.
No global outlook
For instance, Spain is yet to catch up with others when it comes to delivering education specifically addressed to the global candidate. We have very few programmes delivered in English, for example, and this closes an important segment of the market.
Also, apart from some private universities, there's not much out there in terms of clear, explicit continuity between your studies and the professional world.
Photo: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy/Flickr
Not delivering many degrees in English is only part of the problem though. France receives many more Latin American students than Spain, and that's despite the obvious linguistic advantage that the Spanish language means (a global market of 500 million plus).
Another significant drawback is the relatively complex administration Spain is renowned for: autonomous communities are rarely good news for internationalisation. They break Spain's "market unity" and, it's almost in their DNA, they tend to have a more parochial outlook than institutions dependent on national administrations.
Politics hasn't helped. Some of Spain's campuses are highly ideological, and can have a bit of an oppressive attitude to difference. Moreover, there has not been a solid, widely agreed set of educational policies in Spain. Each government tends to perform a u-turn on what the previous one tried to do.
Photo: Clark Gregor/Flickr
Finally, Spain spends relatively little money in advertising its education system abroad. So there is a marketing problem too.
POSITIVES OF STUDYING IN SPAIN
History and culture
Spain really should be more attractive to foreign students, on several grounds. The most obvious is that it is one of the world's most attractive nations in terms of cultural and historical heritage, and that's a bonus for anyone looking at expanding their horizons.
Its education is also relatively inexpensive compared with that of other European nations, nevermind the USA. The quality of education one can receive varies, but not much more than it does in other, more popular destinations.
In general, there are good standards of education, manageable class sizes (in fact smaller than in most other "competitors"), good facilities, and rigurous programmes of study.
Research outputs are numerous despite relatively frugal investment: Spain's researchers punch well above their weight in terms of budget, and Spanish universities produce world class talent: the fact that many Spanish graduates go on to work in elite labs and research clusters worldwide should also be credited to Spanish universities themselves. Some of Spain's labs and research clusters are also world class on their own merits.
All in all, Spain really can be a smart choice when one weighs pros and cons, especially if a candidate is ready to immerse themselves in a foreign language and culture. If one is open minded to that extent, Spain, albeit admittedly far from perfect, can offer a great experience.
Dr Carlos Conde Solares is a senior lecturer in Hispanic Studies at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.