Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF

Economic impact of foreign students in Spain estimated at €2.2 billion

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • A new study estimates total foreign enrolment in Spain at just under 617,000 students in 2018
  • The direct economic impact of these exchange, language, and graduate business students has been estimated at nearly €2.2 billion
  • The study highlights the economic and cultural importance of international education in Spain, and argues for better data collection and policy development to support further growth in the future

There are nearly 500 million native Spanish speakers worldwide, meaning that Spanish is the second most commonly spoken mother tongue in the world (with only Mandarin able to claim more native speakers). Spanish is also one of the most popular choices for foreign language study (after only English and French) with an estimated 22 million students enrolled in Spanish language studies worldwide in 2018. Given the global importance of Spanish, it is hardly surprising that Spain is one of Europe’s most important study destinations. This is certainly true for language learners but also for exchange students – especially those from the United States – and Spain is a top destination for Erasmus+ exchanges as well. Various education bodies in Spain have sought to measure the economic impact of inbound student mobility over the last decade and more. For the last few years, an annual economic impact report has been produced by the industry consultancy Spain Education Programs with the participation of a consortium of education associations, notably EDUESPAÑA, the Association of North American Programs in Spain (APUNE), the Spanish Association of Business Schools (AEEN), and the Spanish Federation of Associations of Spanish Schools for Foreigners (FEDELE). The national government supports the research effort as well with data and funding from the Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade (ICEX), which operates under The Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism. The latest study – The Economic Impact of International Students in Spain, 2018 – was released in April this year. The scope of the analysis has expanded over time and this year’s edition is no exception in that the report now seeks to measure the impact of US exchange students, Erasmus+ exchanges, enrolments in Spanish language studies, and, for the first time, graduate business students. Taking statistics and estimates from across these education sectors, the report counts nearly 617,000 foreign students in Spain in 2018, with a direct economic impact of nearly €2.2 billion (US$2.5 billion). “Spain continues to be an appealing destination for students of all types and the sector has further potential for growth and development,” says the report. “But [Spanish educators and stakeholders] must realize that they are competing with countries around the world for this spend. The relevance of the export of education should be considered when [setting] policies and procedures impacting the industry… Spain is one of the major exporters of education worldwide along with countries greater in size and population, such as The United States, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain. Several of those nations have highly coordinated efforts to build this market and all of them give the sector priority in handling visas, temporary immigration for study, and related governmental support.”

Enrolment by sector

The following chart break downs the study’s total enrolment figure by sector. It should be said that these totals entirely reflect international student head counts, with length of stay varying considerably across these totals. foreign-enrolment-in-spain-by-educational-sector-2018 Foreign enrolment in Spain, by educational sector, 2018. Source: SEP The 55,018 students in the study abroad category, for example, reflect entirely the number of American students who undertook an exchange in Spain last year. SEP’s analysis notes that nearly two-thirds of those students (65%, or just over 35,500) were in Spain for eight weeks or less. Another third (slightly more than 18,000 students) went on semester exchanges with only 1,265 staying on for a full academic year. Language studies accounted for the lion’s share of total foreign enrolment in SEP’s analysis. However, there is no detailed data available for the language and culture sector in Spain. The annual reports produced by FEDELE are a very important indicator of the scale of the sector, and of important trends for Spanish language schools, but those reports capture only a portion of all language centres in the country (71 schools responded to the latest FEDELE survey). SEP accounts for this gap by extrapolating the average enrolment per school reported by FEDELE members (1,349 in 2017) to all 350 Spanish language schools tracked by EDUESPAÑA to arrive at a total estimated enrolment of 472,150. FEDELE notes as well that the average stay per student, in 2017, was 2.34 weeks (this number increased slightly in 2018 to 2.4 weeks). In contrast, the 27,280 business students counted in the SEP analysis were all enrolled for a full academic year, as the study focused exclusively on enrolments in one-year master’s programmes. Finally, the report draws on European Commission data for its Erasmus+ statistics, noting as well that the average stay in Spain for Erasmus+ exchange students is 5.2 months (or roughly a semester per student). In correspondence with ICEF Monitor, Dr Cristina Grasset, a higher education specialist with SEP and one of the authors of the report, noted important opportunities for Spanish institutions to further expand international student numbers in gap year and full-degree programmes.

Economic impact by sector

As these variations suggest, the average language student will typically have a shorter stay, and therefore a lesser economic impact, than will the average business student. The following chart illustrates that impact by sector, and, in so doing, adjusts for the varying lengths of stay for the different categories of students tracked in the SEP analysis. economic-impact-of-foreign-enrolment-in-spain-in-euros-by-educational-sector-2018 Economic impact of foreign enrolment in Spain (in Euros), by educational sector, 2018. Source: SEP “International education, in all its forms, is now a major economic sector for the Spanish economy,” concludes the report. “The impact of hundreds of thousands of students in Spain, both on the finances of our educational institutions, and on the multiplier impact on the overall Spanish economy, is enormous…Facilitation of this market by the Spanish government, everything from visas to marketing support for exporters, is important…The sector would greatly benefit from: greater institutional funds and support, coordinated marketing efforts for all four clusters included in this study, and an expedited process for student visas.” For additional background, please see:

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