It’s time for students to cheer ‘viva Espana’

The popular exchange destination now wants our full-time undergraduates, says Jessica Moore

British visitors are nothing new to Spain. Locals are accustomed to the easyJet arrivals, the parade of wheelie suitcases, the badly pronounced requests for “dos cervezas”.

What might raise an eyebrow is when these arrivals head not to the beach but directly to university.

“I want to be a citizen, rather than a tourist,” says 18-year-old Londoner Esme Alexander, who is currently sitting A-levels at Bryanston School in Dorset. Alexander has a conditional place to study psychology and business at IE, a private university in Segovia.

Alexander is something of an anomaly. While UK students’ interest in European universities is broadly on the up – not least because of raised tuition fees at home and a cap on available places – Spain isn’t yet a common choice for British undergraduates looking to take their entire degree overseas.

As a short-term destination, however, Spain reels them in. It’s the second most popular country for UK students on Erasmus educational exchange programmes. Emily Cairns, 22, from Buckingham, is currently spending a year at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid as part of her degree in law and hispanic law at University College London (UCL). She believes her time in Madrid will give her an edge when she hits the job market: “The competition to get any [legal] training contract in the UK is high, and given that everything is becoming more international, to speak another language and to have a knowledge of another legal system will be very useful”.

“Among British students, the most popular route so far has been the Erasmus scheme,” acknowledges José Manuel Martínez Sierra, general director at the Foundation, a government-sponsored agency established to promote their universities worldwide. “There are some British students who are studying their whole degree in Spain, but not many at the moment.” He says this is largely because few Spanish universities run bachelor’s courses entirely in English. The Universidad.ed Foundation lists 14 programmes across four universities.

There is also a lack of awareness. “So far, we haven’t done anything to promote Spanish universities in the UK,” Sierra admits. This is now on the agenda.

While Spain broadly battles with economic instability and austerity measures, their government’s Strategy University 2015 is investing in the internationalisation of their campuses. “We want more international students, so the government is actively recruiting,” Sierra explains. Foundation is consequently working with the British Council, starting with a tour of Scottish universities, aiming to forge links between campuses in Scotland and Spain, and promote Spain to prospective Scottish students.

Individual institutions are doing their bit to spread the word too. Sally Averill is director of IE University’s UK office, which opened this year to support a growing number of UK applicants.

“We’ve worked in secondary schools and have quite a lot of interest, especially from schools that teach the International Baccalaureate [IB], because they have a more international ethos,” Averill says. In fact, 60 per cent of IE’s students studied the IB, although A-level candidates are equally welcome, as are those with no knowledge of Spanish whatsoever.

“I don’t think it matters,” says Averill. “The degree is taught in English and it’s an international environment. Students are encouraged to take Spanish classes, though, because the aim is for them to be at least bilingual when they finish the course.”

To that end, IE’s first- and second-year students receive a scholarship to study at their Language Centre. Sierra says: “One of the attractions for international students, even when they are learning in English, is the opportunity to learn Spanish. It’s an increasingly important language internationally, and a bridge to Latin America. At the moment, the most relevant aspects for international students coming to Spain are the language, the quality of education, and the low price”.

British students pay the same as Spanish students. According to, the cost of bachelor’s degree, or grado, is about €1,000 [£872] a year. In the UK, the maximum fees per year are £3,375, rising to £9,000 for courses starting from September 2012. Private universities tend to be dearer in both countries. A bachelor’s degree at IE in Segovia, for example, costs €18,000 [£15,700] a year and takes four years to complete. However, Alexander notes: “They give amazing financial aid. I get an IE Fellows Scholarship.” This scholarship awards up to a 50 per cent reduction in tuition fees. At public universities, too, grants and scholarships may be available to UK students.

Alexander is also excited by the structure of her course. “It’s similar to the American liberal arts system where you branch out from your major, trying different subjects,” she says. “British universities seem more narrow, and a lot is expected of the student in terms of managing their own time. At IE, it seems more of a follow-on from secondary school: you have a curriculum, you’re expected to be there nine-to-five, you have a lot of tutorial time and lectures – it’s more structured. That suits me because I’m more focused on the academics than the social aspect.”

Classes are smaller, too, with 25 to 50 students per group. Sierra concludes: “British students are particularly welcome in Spain because we know that there is a very high standard in Britain. Spanish universities are establishing tailor-made programmes for these students to help them learn the language while studying their course in English, and international and admissions offices are very helpful.”

This is borne out by Cairns’ experience: “The classes are well organised, all the content is clear, the teachers email back straight away, and they’re accommodating of students who don’t have the language. When we first arrived, we were linked to a coordinator and shown the international office. There’s an established network of support. I would recommend coming to study in Spain to anyone,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to get to know a language and culture by living there – and that’s really the only way of doing it.”

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