Education in Europe: UK and Spain (Part III) Martina Mocinecová

After presenting Germany, Belarus, Austria, Russia and Romania, in this article we focus on the UK and Spain.

Several students are afraid to move to the UK for their studies, because of the high living costs. At the same time, statistics reveal that Spain is one of the cheapest European countries in terms of basic articles. However, while according to the students, Spanish universities need to be renovated, UK offers extremely well equipped ones.

What are the other aspects which differentiate the two countries’ educational system? Are there any similarities?

Edina Szirb presents the educational system of the UK. She is studying International Relations and European Studies in Cluj-Napoca, but spent a year in the UK at the University College London.

Spain is introduced by César Desfuli, volunteer at One Europe. He is studying for a double-degree in Journalism and Social Communication at Rey Juan Carlos University of Madrid.

Education system in General

UK: The British education system is overseen by the Department for Education. It is divided into four stages: early years (between ages 3-4), primary education (ages 4-11), secondary education (ages 11-18) and tertiary education (18-).

Currently, full-time education is compulsory for all children until the age of 17. The 2008 Education and Skills Act raised it to 18. Its measures are going to be implemented starting in 2013 for 16-year-olds and only in 2015 for 17-year-olds. The English variant for the Baccalaureate Diploma received after successfully completing secondary education, is the A-level qualification (GCE Advanced Level). A-levels require studying an A-level subject for a period of two years, and sitting an examination after each year. However, most students study 3 or 4 subjects simultaneously in their final years of secondary education.

Regarding tertiary education, The United Kingdom was one of the 29 countries to sign the Bologna Declaration aiming to reform the different European structures ‘in a convergent way’, and thus is part of the Bologna educational system.

An interesting fact about the UK is the tradition of independent schooling in private schools (especially after the age of 16).  

Spain: The compulsory educational period in Spain is 10 years, which starts at the age of 6 and ends at 16. During these years we have two separated levels: firstly, there is the primary school from 6 till 12 years old, in which children acquire basic and general knowledge about math, history, Spanish language, arts, music, etc. It is followed by 4 years of secondary school, the educative level in which the students should start to think about what they want to do with their future, although usually this doesn´t happen. In these years, students don´t have a real chance to choose the itinerary they want to follow; the main number of subjects is obligatory and just two from the total can be selected by them (these 2 subjects are usually quite ridiculous and useless). This explains, why the drop-out rate reaches 25%.

After it, there are 2 possibilities: continuing your studies with 2 more years of baccalaureate, which are mainly focused on preparing you to the university, or going to the vocational education which is composed of workshops that teach you to be a manual worker in different fields.

If you choose the first option and continue your studies, you'll soon realize that these 2 more years of studies are not enough to decide what you really want to do, because they are just a prolongation of secondary school subjects (and 80% of the subjects are obligatory and equal in all the itineraries – science, social sciences, architecture, arts, etc-), so it doesn't really prepare you for your future, but it does shorten your later options.

For example, if you decide on social sciences, when you have to select the degree course which you want to study at the university level, you will be limited to pick only the social sciences. Nonetheless, you are not even well prepared for that and by then it´s also too late to change your itinerary. As a result, many people study majors just because the social influence suggests “you have to go to the university, it doesn't matter what you study”.

Attitude of students

UK: England is one of the countries that welcome the most international students, providing a truly multicultural environment. Generally, the students are passionate about the field and the university they study at. They are coming from different backgrounds, are interested in diversity and seek a creative environment to gain knowledge, and socialize at the same time.

Nonetheless, apart from their professional capabilities, interests, goals and future prospects, the high rate of fees play a very important role in students’ decision to apply to an English institution. Universities like Cambridge, Oxford or University College London occupy top places amongst the best universities in the world (the rating is highly based on student feedback and satisfaction), while they are also known for having the largest tuition in the European educational system. 

Spain: I would say that the Spanish students usually don´t take seriously their studies. This is firstly caused by the institutions and secondly by the society. The schools and universities have been decreasing their requirements and the level to pass the course, so students don´t need to undertake too much effort (it depends on the degree and the university, but generally it has happened all over). The fact that many students don´t study what they want (because of the social influence mentioned previously in this article) has a negative impact on the society. Most of our young people have high level studies, but they don´t appreciate them, they don´t have any passion about them, they are not ambitious with their career.

This is getting stronger now due to the economical crisis, because everybody wants to study something in order to have some perspectives.
Fortunately, the crisis is contributing positively as well. Many people are developing new ideas, starting to create their own business and initiatives, being creative to deal with the negative situation around, and perhaps this is part of the solution. Programs as Erasmus Scholarship are contributing to improve the situation, but there is still much to do.

After University

UK: The greatest advantage the universities offer is the prospect and high chance of finding a job in the studied field after graduation. Thus, many international students chose to continue to live in England where they have the possibility to get into the desired workplaces.

Spain: No possibilities right now. The youth-unemployment rate over 50% says enough about how limited the opportunities are, when you finish your studies. A high percentage of young people in Spain have high level studies, we are the best prepared generation in our history. However, at the same time, we have the highest rate of unemployment we have ever faced. This is the reason why thousands of youngsters have left the country since the economical crisis has come. For the first time in the last 50 years, the number of emigrants has overcome that of the immigrants, and most of the affected people are under 35.

The majority of students who can´t find a job and aren't so brave to move abroad, are starting to study new master degrees just to be occupied. I would also say that now it is the time when the record number of Spanish people is learning foreign languages. Almost everybody, even people over 50, is doing it (English and German mainly), to be prepared if the crisis lasts too much and they need to find their future somewhere else.


UK: Although there are high fees, expensive rent and prices (compared to other EU countries), - which prevent many students, especially international, to apply to an English university - one of the greatest benefits is represented by the facilities provided. These are premium-standard with exceptionally well-equipped libraries, laboratories and well-trained, professional personnel.

Spain: Our universities need to be renovated. Almost all of them were built more than 40 years ago, without any restoration since then, so the equipment is quite out-dated. During the last decade before the beginning of the crisis, new universities were constructed. Nevertheless, now there aren't enough money to make proper use of the facilities they have. Moreover, most of the teachers are over 60, and without doing any research within their last 20 years.

Still, I believe, within the forthcoming years it will change. Nowadays numerous student movements are involved in the improvement of the university system, so I want to think that this will bring a change.

Public vs. Private

UK: The tuition fees, rent and prices are generally higher than in the majority of the EU countries: largest costs in the European educational system.

Spain: The prices were doubled last year (crisis one more time), and the government is thinking about increasing them again. The costs depend on the type of degree and the university, but the minimum we pay in a year is now 1500€. Many people can´t afford it and initiatives were launched via crowdfunding or other ways to help the students in need.

This year the number of enrolled decreased, as a lot of those non-paying were expelled. The situation is heading towards the verge. The government is going to reduce the amount of scholarships, so probably next year this trend will become even worse.

(Special thanks to Edina Szirb and César Desfuli for preparing the presentation of the educational system in their countries.)

Final questions

On a closing analytical note: What are the common points of the education system of Germany, Belarus, Austria, Romania, Russia, Spain and the UK? Are there any common dynamics or we should talk about entirely different scenarios? Is the level of people working in their study fields similar in Europe?

Findings and Trends

Regarding the education system in general, all European countries except for Belarus accepted the Bologna Process, so we can clearly talk about a common and integrated higher-education system in Europe. Regarding job opportunities after education, our writers claim that with the exception of the UK and Germany, the attitude of countries is usually diploma oriented.

Even if the unemployment rate is not high (excepting Spain), graduates usually accept a workplace unrelated to their degree or - because of the economic situation and low salaries - they move to another country. Youth unemployment is unfortunately increasing in general; therefore, many students try to finish a faculty which, according to the general belief, gives higher chances of getting a job as a graduate. Does this attitude bring less high qualified specialists for the non-popular fields? It is debatable.

According to our writers there are huge differences between Eastern and Western countries with regard to facilities. While Russian and Belarusian universities need to be renovated, the UK and Germany offers well equipped ones, with laboratories and libraries high above average. Minor changes are made every year, but Europe is in economic crisis though, so the chances of making major investments are low.

Boundaries are fading and more and more students are interested in studying in different countries than that of their nationality. There are a lot of reasons for that: better facilities, more practice-oriented education, more appreciated diploma, better chances for the future or just curiosity (and the chance to spend just half a year, or a year in a foreign country with the Erasmus program). The EU made it much easier.

Also, the level of learning foreign languages in the European Union is increasing, which is very positive. We can definitely observe a shift from national studies to cross-border studies which - as hoped - helps the students be more open-minded, gain a lot of experience during their studies, so that after graduation they can have higher chances of being hired in their field. 

Edited by: 
Ramona Koska 
Photo credits: Martina Mocinecová