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Are Spanish universities any good?

The Local Spain
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Are Spanish universities any good?
Is it worth studying a university degree in Spain? (Photo by GERARD JULIEN / AFP)

Universities in Spain are often underrepresented in international rankings, although job prospects upon graduating can really depend on what you studied. Which Spanish universities stand out?


Spain has a total of 83 universities, 50 of which are public and 33 private.

A 2023 international ranking put 9 of these Spanish universidades in the top 500, but none of them placed in the top 100. 

So are Spanish universities any good as a whole?

Which are considered the best, and what does studying at a Spanish university do for your employability and future earning potential?

How do Spanish universities rank globally?

In this latest edition of the 2023 Shanghai university rankings, nine Spanish institutions are in the top 500 but none of them cracked the top 100. In total, 38 Spanish universities are in the top 1,000 in the world, but only nine are among the top 500.

The nine that made the top 500 were:

- University of Barcelona (201-300 bracket)

- University of Granada (201-300)

- Autonomous University of Barcelona (301-400)

- Autonomous University of Madrid (301-400)

- Complutense University of Madrid (301-400)

- Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona (301-400)

- University of Valencia (301-400)

- Polytechnic University of Valencia (401-500)

- University of the Basque Country (401-500)

The University of Alicante, University of Navarra, University of Salamanca, University of Seville and University of Vigo all ranked in the 500-600 range.


Comparing Spain's universities with neighbouring European countries such as France, Switzerland and Germany, each have four universities ranked in the top 100 in the world, while Spain has none.

The UK has 8, while the Netherlands and Sweden have 3 each.


These sorts of university ranking systems, especially at the international level, can often use quite arbitrary criteria. And the Shanghai ranking is just one ranking, after all.

So how do Spanish universities stack up in other international rankings?

According to the 2023 QS University rankings, 14 Spanish institutions ranks in the world's 500 best universities, with four cracking the top 200. They are:

- Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (149)

- Universitat de Barcelona (164)

- Complutense University of Madrid (171)

- Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (199)

- University of Navarra (280)

- Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona (310)

- Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (319)

- Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (349)

- Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (354)

- University of Granada (304)

- IE University (Segovia) (428)

- Universitat Politecnica de Valencia (470)

- Universitat de Valencia (485)

- Universidad de Sevilla (494)


What career prospects do Spanish universities offer?

9.08 million of the 19.7 million people who were working in Spain in 2021 had a higher education qualification, according to figures published in Spain’s Working Population Survey (EPA), reflecting how around 46 percent of Spain’s workforce is forced to accept a job that’s not in their field and probably not meeting their salary expectations.

According to Eurostat data from January 2021, 37 percent of Spain’s workforce is considered 'overqualified', 17 percent more than the EU average.

READ ALSO: Why more people than ever in Spain are overqualified for their jobs

And salary prospects aren't much better, though it really depends on what you study.

According to the joint study done by the Valencian Institute of Economic Research and the BBVA Foundation only a select few degree programmes in Spain guarantee newly graduated students a monthly salary equal to or greater than €1,500 upon leaving university.

In the rankings, the overall percentage of employed graduates in Spain with a salary greater than or equal to €1,500 is just 54.3 percent.

According to the Eurostat data, three out of four Spanish graduates get a job within three years of leaving university, however, there are only ten degree programmes that earn Spanish graduates salaries of €1,500 per month or more.

READ ALSO: Can I study English-language degrees at universities in Spain?

The degrees with the highest employment rates, an average of 96.3 percent, were computer and informatics subjects, of which 79.7 percent had salaries greater than or equal to €1,500. 89 percent of graduates were working in jobs related to their studies. Students who studied for 'services' based degrees were fairly well employed after leaving university (84.4 percent) but just 37.9 percent made €1,500 per month.

The arts and humanities degrees were the worst performing in the study. Overall only 77.1 percent of arts and humanities graduates were employed, with just 36.4 percent of them earning €1,500 per month or more.

Equally, moving from university into the job market can be a little more complicated in Spain than it is compared with other European countries. While across the EU an average of 84.9 percent of recent graduates find a job relatively easily, in Spain that figure falls to just 76.8 percent, far lower than the Netherlands (95.2 percent); Germany (93.8 percent), and France (83.7 percent).

In fact, of the 27 EU member states, only Italy and Greece have worse rates than Spain, with averages of 67.5 percent and 63.5 percent, respectively.

READ ALSO: Only a few degrees in Spain offer graduates salaries of more than €1,500 per month


Do Spanish university rankings actually matter?

It is important to remember that international university rankings do not mean that a university is 'good' or 'bad' per say, and it often depends on what the criteria for the ranking is.

In an article titled "Spain will never sweep the university rankings, and perhaps that is an advantage" published in El Confidencial in 2022, journalist Héctor García Barnés argues that the true quality of the Spanish university system is not accurately reflected in lists like the Shanghai rankings.

This is due to several factors, namely the methodology used to come up with the rankings, but also the Asia and American-centric focus of the rankings, and the emphasis on research as opposed to teaching and sciences as opposed to arts and humanities, a trend that hurts Spanish universities (and European universities more broadly) in global rankings.

In the piece, Barnés cites María Teresa Gómez Marcos, PhD in Applied Multivariate Statistics who works at the Pontifical University of Salamanca and co-author of a study on the Shanghai ranking, which concludes that it is not a good tool for measuring academic success exactly because it focuses mainly on research and not on teaching.

READ ALSO: Spain approves increase in scholarship aid for students

"It is a ranking focused on research, which has a lot to do with funding," Marcos said, something that benefits the largest universities with the biggest budgets. UCLA, part of the University of California, for example, which regularly ranks in the top 30 in the world, has a bigger budget than the nine Andalusian universities combined.

The Shanghai ranking is primarily based on four criteria: publication in 'Nature' or 'Science' or in the Science Citation Index-Expanded and Social Sciences Citation Indexes, which accounts for 20 percent of the total score; highly cited researchers, another 20 percent; quality of faculty, 20 percent; teaching, just 10 percent; and size of research, 10 percent.

Another factor that skews the rankings away from high quality Spanish universities is that the system undervalues Humanities and Social Sciences, subject areas where Spain is traditionally very strong and Asian universities less so.

READ ALSO: Is doing vocational training in Spain worth it?


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