Higher education in Spain

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There are 76 universities in Spain, most of which are supported by state funding. 24 Spanish universities are private, of which 7 are affiliated with the Catholic Church.

Former degrees were:

  • Licenciatura or ingeniería, can last four, five or six years.
  • Diplomatura or ingeniería técnica, degree courses of shorter duration, 3 years.

Under the new European Higher Education Area, these former undergraduate degrees are being replaced by the título de grado (Bachelor's degree) or the título de máster (Master's degree).


The origins of higher education in Spain date back to Al-Andalus, the period of Islamic rule. Madrasahs were established in the Andalusian cities of Córdoba, Seville, Toledo, Granada (Madrasah of Granada), Murcia, Almería, Valencia and Cádiz during the Caliphate of Córdoba.[1]

Problems of definition make it difficult to date the origins of universities. The first medieval European universities were simply groups of scholars, the word "university" being derived from the Latin universitas, meaning corporation. Nonetheless, the University of Palencia appears to have been the first high education institution in Spain, while the University of Salamanca (Universidad de Salamanca) is the oldest existing Spanish university. Founded in 1218, during a period of expansion that had begun in the 11th century, this University is considered to be one of the oldest in Western Europe. The university was founded as a "General School of the kingdom" by King Alfonso IX of León in 1218 so that the Leonese people could study at home without having to leave for Castile.

The reign of Ferdinand, King of Aragon, and Isabella I, Queen of Castile, saw a professionalisation of the apparatus of government in Spain, which led to a demand for men of letters (letrados) who were university graduates (licenciados), of Salamanca, Valladolid and Alcalá de Henares. These men staffed the various councils of state, including, eventually, the Consejo de Indias and Casa de Contratacion, the two highest bodies in metropolitan Spain for the government of the Spanish Empire in the New World.

Many of the medieval universities in Western Europe were born under the aegis of the Catholic Church, usually as cathedral schools or by papal bull as Studia Generali. In the early medieval period, most new universities were founded from pre-existing schools, usually when these schools were deemed to have become primarily sites of higher education. Many historians state that universities and cathedral schools were a continuation of the interest in learning promoted by monasteries.

In Europe, young men proceeded to university when they had completed their study of the trivium–the preparatory arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic–and the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. (See degrees of Oxford University for the history of how the trivium and quadrivium developed in relation to degrees, especially in anglophone universities).

Several of the world's oldest universities are located in Spain or were founded by Spanish scholars across the world at the time of the Spanish Empire.

The University of Salamanca, founded by King Alfonso IX of Leon in 1218 is the world's 8th oldest university. The oldest existing universities both in Asia (University of Santo Tomas) and the Americas (University of Santo Domingo) were founded by Spanish religious orders in the 16th century.

The creation of the Spanish Empire brought a significant expansion in royal positions for university-trained lawyer-bureaucrats who were not nobles and were dependent on and loyal to the crown. The multiple royal councils needed university-trained men, as did royal government in the Indies. These were men who had studied Roman Law. "The law schools of universities were the training ground of the Crown's advisers."[2] The first medieval European universities were simply groups of scholars, the word "university" being derived from the Latin universitas, meaning corporation. The University of Palencia appears to have been the first high education institution in Spain and the third in the world, after Bologna and Oxford, while the University of Salamanca is the oldest existing Spanish university.[3] Founded in 1218, during a period of expansion that had begun in the 11th century, Salamanca is considered to be the third oldest in Western Europe. The university was founded as a "General School of the kingdom" by Alfonso IX in 1218 so that the Leonese people could study at home without having to leave for Castile.[4]

El Pilar is a school with a long list of old boys (former pupils), including one Prime Minister.[5]

From the Imperial School to St. Bartholomew's College or Our Lady of Mount Zion, the Spanish set up a solid educational system as well as one of the first prominent fee-paying schools in Europe. Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, was one of the many English boarding schools founded by Spanish Jesuits under the Empire, and was originally established in the Spanish Netherlands in 1593. The aim of these schools was to provide English boys with a Roman Catholic education during the rule of Elizabeth I.[6]

High-ranking army men and senior administrators of the empire usually pursued a rigorous education for their sons in Spain. The aim was to continue producing future leaders to serve the Spanish Empire and its interests, often resulting in a well-developed final product of colonial governors.[7] Most of these schools were established by Catholic orders such as the Jesuits, with the intention of emphasizing catholic values at heart, since the Catholic Church was arguably the greatest promoter of the Spanish Empire.


Admission to the Spanish university system is determined by the nota de corte (literally, "cutoff grade") that is achieved at the end of the two-year Bachillerato, an optional course that students can take from the age of 16 when the period of obligatory secondary education (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria, or ESO) comes to an end. A number between 1 and 10, the nota de corte is a combination of the grade achieved from the Bachillerato exams which the students take at school, and the average grade (nota de media) obtained from the university selection exam (commonly known as la Selectividad but officially named "Prueba de Acceso a la Universidad" or PAU) that the students will take at the local university.

The most popular courses at public universities demand the highest nota de corte, while for private universities cost is normally the factor that determines which course a student will follow (that is, the most popular courses are inevitably the most expensive).[citation needed]


There are several rankings for Spanish Universities. The best known ones are the Shanghai Jiao Tong, QS and THE Ranking. These are international rankings, however, there are also some national rankings comprising the "50 carreras" (50 degrees) from the "El Mundo" newspaper, the CSIC or the IAIF ranking of the UCM.

Spain's Higher Educations system has been ranked top-5th by the Spanish CSIC[8] only after the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada.

National Rankings[edit]

IAIF Ranking - El País[edit]

It was published in 2009. It was done by the Instituto de Análisis Industrial y Financiero (Industrial and Financial Analysis Institute) of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and ranked the 69 Spanish universities:

Universidad Teaching Research Global
1 Universidad de Navarra 100,00 100,00 100,00
2 Universidad de Córdoba 60,90 63,96 62,46
3 Universidad Rovira i Virgili (Tarragona) 53,24 70,66 62,12
4 Universidad de Oviedo 57,32 66,36 61,93
5 Universidad de Santiago de Compostela 58,34 64,75 61,61
6 Universidad de Salamanca 78,82 40,98 59,53
7 Universidad de Granada 64,40 54,76 59,48
8 Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona 57,76 57,68 57,72
9 Universitat de Barcelona 55,60 58,90 57,28
10 Universitat Pompeu Fabra 51,43 62,71 57,18

50 Carreras (El Mundo)[edit]

It is a well known ranking in Spain and it is published every year by the national newspaper "El Mundo".

2011 Ranking University
1 Universidad Complutense de Madrid
2 Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
3 Universitat de Barcelona
4 Universidad Autónoma de Madrid
5 Universidad Politécnica de Madrid
6 Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya
7 Universidad de Navarra
8 Universidad Carlos III
9 Universitat Pompeu Fabra

International Rankings[edit]

QS Ranking[edit]

Published annually since 2004, QS World University Rankings® is one of the most complete and trusted university ranking in the world.

2020 Ranking University
1 Universitat de Barcelona
2 Universidad Autónoma de Madrid
3 Universidad Complutense de Madrid
4 Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
5 Universidad de Navarra
6 Universitat Pompeu Fabra
7 Universidad Carlos III de Madrid
8 Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya
9 Universitat Politècnica de València

Shanghai Ranking[edit]

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) is first published in June 2003 by the Center for World-Class Universities (CWCU), Graduate School of Education (formerly the Institute of Higher Education) of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China, and updated on an annual basis. Despite its prestige, many people criticize them because they don't take into account the size of the universities for their rankings.

2019 Ranking University
1 Universitat de Barcelona
2-5 Universitat de València
2-5 Universidad de Granada
2-5 Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
2-5 Universidad Complutense de Madrid
6-7 Universidad Autónoma de Madrid
6-7 Universitat Pompeu Fabra

List of public universities[edit]

List of private universities[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "education", Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008, retrieved 2008-09-30
  2. ^ Parry, J.H. The Spanish Seaborne Empire. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press 1990, p. 137.
  3. ^ Historia - Facultad de Derecho Universidad de Valladolid
  4. ^ "education", Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008, retrieved 2008-09-30
  5. ^ http://www.elconfidencial.com/espana/2012-02-19/el-pilar-un-colegio-de-dirigentes_232887/
  6. ^ Robert Parsons, Catholic Encyclopaedia (1913)
  7. ^ Thomas, Hugh; El Imperio Español de Carlos V (2010)
  8. ^ http://www.webometrics.info/Distribution_by_Country.asp

External links[edit]