Want to study abroad? Here’s why you should choose Spain

Inexpensive compared to their northern European couterparts, why aren't more students choosing to take their degree in Spain?

Want to study abroad? Here's why you should choose Spain
Photo: Luftphilla/Flickr

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.


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.

Good education

Photo: Luftphilla/Flickr 

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.

World-class research 

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. 

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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.