Global Spotlight: Spain

While Spain is a top destination for students from around the world, the country has struggled to maintain quality and retain students in its higher education system.
Meredith Bell
Rachel de Rosset

For the last 17 years, Spain has been the third most popular destination for U.S. students abroad, according to Open Doors data from the Institute of International Education. Spain is the top destination for Erasmus+ students, and it is consistently among the top European destinations for international students from around the world.

However, Spain struggles to maintain quality and retain students within its own educational system. One indicator is the poor performance of Spanish universities in world university rankings—the first Spanish university to appear in the Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings 2020 is Pompeu Fabra University, in 143rd place. By comparison, Germany has 12 universities that placed higher.

One possible explanation: insufficient investment in the Spain’s public universities. Between 2008 and 2017, as the country was grappling with severe economic woes and austerity policies, public university funding dropped by 22 percent. There were pay cuts and hiring restrictions on academics and university staff; simultaneously, tuition costs and other fees went up, leading to student protests.

Recovery from these measures has been slow. Despite increased investment in recent years, funding today is still behind what it was in 2008, and higher education enrollment is down almost 6 percent from 2008–09, according to a 2019 report from the European University Association.

Economic outlook is stronger now, and there are signs that the current government may be prioritizing investment in higher education. In January, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez Pérez-Castejón appointed Manuel Castells as the new minister of universities; he will oversee funding and policymaking for Spain’s

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