Higher Education in the Land that Invented Modern Universities

Higher education in Spain has a history that dates back to the time of Islam ruling with the Madrasahs that were established in the Twelfth Century during the Caliphate of Cordoba. The Medieval universities that were founded in Spain from the 13th Century onwards are thought to have been based on these original Islamic schools with the University of Palencia considered to have been the first modern university to have been established in Spain. The oldest university that is still accepting enrollments, the University of Salmanca, was founded in 1218 and is considered to be the oldest university in Western Europe and the eighth oldest in the world. Spain’s influence on academic institutions is well established. The oldest universities in both Asia and the Americas were also founded by the Spanish.

Spain currently has 75 universities, 50 of which are public with the remainder being private institutions. The 50 public universities are almost all under the authority of autonomous communities with only two belonging to the Ministry of Education and Science. Seven of the private universities belong to the Catholic Church. There are also a number of institutes of higher education in Spain that are not classed as universities and which are more focused on vocational training rather than academic development. There are also a number of highly rated business schools that are usually backed by American concerns.

The largest universities in Spain are in Madrid and Barcelona with Grenada and Seville not far behind. After a large increase in the numbers of university enrollments throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the numbers of university students enrolled in any one year is about 1.5 million, a high number for a country with a population of only 45 million. This had led to some problems such as overcrowding. However, these problems usually dissipate after the first year as the examinations are quite severe leading to a high attrition rate. This is in spite of the fact that there are four types of tertiary establishments that cater to different kinds of academic, vocational and technical training.

Because of the high demand for places at Spanish universities there are stringent qualification requirements and entrance examinations. The standard university entrance examination, with students being graded on a scale of ten called the nota de corte (cutoff grade),  has led to the most popular courses having the most exacting entrance requirements and requiring the highest score. These courses are also usually the most expensive as well. The quality of education that this money buys is considered to be on a par with the best in the world, with both the Universidad Complutense in Madrid and the University of Barcelona ranking in the top two hundred universities in the world.

The Spanish university system is rigidly structured and students aren’t permitted to alter their curriculum or change universities during their studies. Qualifications are offered at three levels with the standard Bachelor, Masters’ and doctoral degrees marking students’ academic career paths. Although it is a high pressure and highly regulated system, Spanish higher education is of the highest quality with the veracity Spanish tertiary degrees being recognized around the world.


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