On Poetry and Culture Shock

The so-called crisis of the Spanish university system

Spaniards mistrust their school system in general and in their higher education in particular. A Spanish man told me some time ago that “education isn’t appreciated in this country” (note to non-Spaniards: when we say “in this country” instead of “in Spain” we are implying that Spain compares badly with other Western, industrialised countries). Another Spanish man told me more recently “they’re your typical Spanish newly graduates, but they’re learning to do the job reasonably well”.

My impression after comparing the position of students in three countries is that Spanish education seems bad to us because it is so easily available. Getting an University education is cheap. Dirt cheap. All you need is to finish High School with reasonable grades and you are in. Being a public education system, it is the duty of the State to give a similar access to resources to all universities, so you have big and small colleges but you don’t have good and bad ones, prestigious and not prestigious. No one is going to employ Graduate A instead of Graduate B depending on the origin of their diploma. This means that people apply for the University that’s closest to home. Getting into some departments is occasionally hard, but that does not mean the department is prestigious, only that it is small.

I said that higher education is cheap. This is what I remember paying in my last years as an undergraduate; it’s just a memory so excuse mistakes and lack of sources.
-less than 600 euros a year in fees.
-probably 300 euros a year in textbooks.
-The scheduling makes it next to impossible to work and study at the same time, so I needed my family to support me economically.
-My fees for the first two years of graduate school add up to 400 euros.
Good. Sit down ‘cos there’s a sharp curve coming. Would you like to know the cost in fees (not the cost of living or books or anything: only the fees) of my year at Cornell?

30,000 dollars. Thirty thousand dollars. Si todavía estás contando en pesetas, cinco millones. You could get twelve and a half undergraduate degrees in Spain for the cost of one year at Cornell. Or seven and a half degrees plus textbooks

In Aberdeen University three years ago, fees cost 1,000 pounds a year, if I remember rightly. Considering the difference between the cost of living and the quality of life in Scotland and Spain, it meant that Aberdeen was about 30% more expensive that Seville, and the heaviest burden on the students were everyday expenses rather than the annual fees.

These are the words of Larry Chambers, director of financial aid at Ithaca College as quoted in Ithaca Times: “Families should begin to save for college costs as early as possible, literally when a child is born”.

Anyone who can afford to go to university in Spain gives it a try, including people who are just not meant to get higher education. I know girls in Social Sciences and Humanities who never read as a hobby. Students of History that call themselves atheists and give that as a reason not to learn the differences between different religions (but still wish to pass required courses on that material). Journalism students who do not read the newspapers. Foreign language students who have never travelled abroad. People with an aversion to speaking in public, getting trained to be teachers. Part of the reason for this is that we take for granted our right to start higher education, and that is fantastic; the problem is that some people misunderstand that with the right to get a degree. Laziness and apathy follow.

I don’t mean that people without resources make worse students, but that we cannot appreciate something that takes no effort at all to get. If you know since you are a wee child that going to University is a privilege that takes a lot of personal effort, you learn to value it. We like things that are hard to get, and we work hard to get them. I don’t want to suggest that it should be harder to get into our Universities: everyone should be able to do so, if that is what they really wish. Spaniards should understand that being able to get in does not mean being able to succeed: not by any stretch of the imagination.

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