Demand for Spanish instruction escalating, higher ed still facing challenges

Spain has long been a popular travel and study abroad destination. Of all the participating countries in Europe, Spain receives the largest number of students from the popular Erasmus programme, and in total, the country hosts more than 2% of all international students.

Even amid the current economic turmoil and challenges in the higher education sector, Spain has proved to be resilient as a study destination, thanks in large part to the strength of its language sector.

Demand for Spanish language escalating

Spain’s language sector is a bright spot in the educational system. It was recently cited by Minister of Foreign Affairs José Manuel García-Margallo as an invaluable asset, particularly in building ties with Asia, where interest in Spanish is mounting, according to a 2012 study by the Spanish research firm Instituto Cervantes.

Data from the Institute suggests, for example, that about 25,000 Chinese undergraduates studied Spanish in China in 2012, up from a mere 1,500 twelve years ago. The report reveals that 35 Spanish academies now operate in Beijing, and 90 universities in China offer Spanish.

Demand for Spanish instruction is clearly escalating quickly in Asia – specifically China, Hong Kong, Japan, and India.

But the growth of Spanish learning in Asia merely reflects the growing importance of the language in global economic markets. Not only is the Latin American region economically ascendant, but the use of Spanish online has grown by a staggering 800% in the last few years, making it the third most popular Internet language behind Mandarin and English. Facebook alone has 80 million accounts in Spanish.

With 495 million speakers and 18 million students studying Spanish as a foreign language, it is the second most spoken language in the world today, after Mandarin Chinese, and is an official language in 21 countries. And as the second most common language of economic powerhouses Brazil and the United States, a period of study in Spain can pay dividends. Forecasts suggest that in three or four generations, 10% of the world’s population will understand Spanish, and the US will have the highest volume of Spanish-speakers, after Mexico.

Studying in Spain

In terms of appeal, the country often ranks highly in surveys of preferred destinations. For example, Study Abroad’s 2012 survey of 16,000 international students ranked the University of Salamanca as the ninth best school in the world to study.

The EU-funded body La Red Europea de Migración released a report pegging the number of foreign students in Spain in 2011/2012 at approximately 70,000, which represented about 4.6% of the student body (in 2010/2011 total international student enrolment was 72,488). More foreign students were present at higher academic levels, with foreign participation among undergrads, Masters students, and PhD candidates at respectively 3.3%, 16.9% and 24.7%. The top five places of origin in 2010/11 were Italy, Colombia, Morocco, Romania and France.

To further promote studying in Spain, a few weeks ago, the Spanish government together with Instituto Cervantes launched the new edu-tourism portal Study in Spain. The website serves as a tool to attract potential students from around the world by providing information on the various quality education options that exist in Spain, and the internationalisation of educational services in Spain.

Spain’s education sector fractured

Indicators may point upward for Spain’s language sector, but the country as a whole remains caught in the vise of economic downturn and austerity cuts. In mid-March thousands of teachers, students and parents took to the streets of Madrid to protest more planned budget cuts to the education sector that has already absorbed €5 billion (US $6.5 billion) in decreased funding.

Along with the cuts have come sell-offs to the private sector, raised tuition fees, increases to teachers’ hours, increases in the numbers of students in each class, and allegations of corruption. The government has moved toward restructuring Spain’s universities, only one of which cracks Times Higher Education’s top 200 in its most recent World University Rankings.

Similar challenges exist in other countries, however Spain’s situation is uniquely precarious. While typically thought of by foreigners as one nation, Spain in reality is a conglomeration of seventeen autonomous regions. Those communities have often had fractious relations with the central government in Madrid, and two of those enclaves – Pais Vasco (the Basque Country) and Catalonia – have more economic power and higher levels of prosperity than in the rest of Spain.

For this reason, policies from Madrid affecting the Pais Vasco and Catalonia come freighted not only with historical baggage dating from the time of the country’s civil war and before, but also are seen as instances of the weak dictating to the strong. In those regions, a large percentage of people are advocating national independence.

Mariano Rajoy’s education proposals

It’s against the above backdrop that prime minister Mariano Rajoy and his education minister José Ignacio Wert have targeted Spain’s education sector for broad reforms, including amendments to 2006’s Organic Law of Education (LOE). Some of the changes include:

  • Raising the amount of class time spent on basic skill acquisition, a reinforcement of math, language and science curriculum, and simplification of routes and electives.
  • Using standardised external assessments for all Spanish students, based on subjects measured in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
  • Bolstering the authority and autonomy of the school directors.
  • Enabling the transfer of teachers according to educational needs.

In addition to the aforementioned are two particularly controversial changes:

  • The reversal of a policy enacted after the death of dictator Francisco Franco allowing Basque, Catalan, and Galician to be given priority in regional schools. This issue is particularly divisive because Basque and Catalan were illegal during the dictatorship years, but the intervening period has seen a proud resurgence of the languages.
  • The second change is a reform increasing the curricular content to be determined by Madrid. In autonomous communities such as Pais Vasco and Catalonia it will be raised from 55% to 65%. The reform is ostensibly intended to help enable homogenous evaluations of Spanish students, but Minster Wert did not help himself when in October he admitted wanting to “españolizar” or “to make Spanish” the students of Catalonia.

More changes are in the offing. The Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports has decided to further reduce the Becas scholarships that fund study abroad programmes for language students. The goal is to increase enrolments in local courses, thus keeping more students inside Spain, with the only exempted receiving country being France, for which 500 study abroad scholarships will be retained.

Because of Spain’s unique internal situation it’s difficult to predict what is on the horizon. Rajoy is unlikely to abandon his reform plan, but regional leaders have aired the possibility of challenging the new laws in Spain’s highest court. Complicating matters, an online petition calling for Rajoy’s resignation has logged over one million signatures, which means there is no guarantee he or his reforms will be around for long.

What does all this mean for Spain as a sending/receiving market?

With educational cuts making schooling more expensive, over 50% youth unemployment awaiting graduates, and wage reduction affecting millions of workers, more and more students and young people are migrating out of the country. Jorge Barrio, a 20-year-old topography student going to school in Madrid, told the Global Post recently,

“The only option I see is to go and work or study abroad.”

Barrio is hardly alone. More than 65,000 Spaniards have fled to Argentina since 2008, and another 25,000 have gone to Mexico. Demand to study abroad is up by an estimated 157% from Spaniards, boosting student mobility across Europe, both to more stable EU economies and to other attractive international destinations. Moreover, Spain’s National Statistics Institute expects 500,000+ people to leave the country each year in the near term, and possibly until the year 2020 if demographic trends continue.



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