The end of an ERASMUS year signals countless despedidas, frantic searching for low cost airfare (as you’ve been in denial about leaving and left it to the last minute), and more than anything reflection. Not only how you’ve developed as a person, but also on the institute where you’ve just spent the past year as an alumno.
I came to Spain with some firm stereotypes in mind. Largely derived from its mañana reputation and the brilliant French language film ‘L’auberge espagnole’, it is fair to say siesta, tapas, fiesta y un poquito de estudio would be a wholly accurate summary of what I expected to encounter – all different to work oriented England.
Well, the differences between English and Spanish universities ARE immense – and that’s excluding the fact it’s all in a different language. Spanish Universities implement the Bologna Higher Education System, a framework developed by the EU to level out the varying types and difficulties of degrees in Europe. Bologna is designed to give students more contact hours with teachers, which inevitably means more modules, and as a consequence more work. In this respect it is a positive move, certainly some of the most frequent complaints to come out of my mouth – or that of my compañeros de clase back in Blighty - are annoyances such as “This just hasn’t been explained properly”, “they went over that topic too quickly” and “we don’t get anywhere near enough contact hours for our tuition fees”. These negatives are expelled with the heavily work orientated Bologna; in fact, you actually do far more than is necessary.
Here the immediate difference with (certainly my, and I presume other) English universities becomes apparent: a minimum of four hours a week (normally two in large theory classes and two in smaller practical, seminar type classes) per module – as opposed to two. Five modules each semester – as opposed to three, adding up to 60 credits over the space of an academic year, with an average of 20 mandatory hours a week in the classroom with a small number (usually three) of faltas (absences) granted at the discretion of the professor. Medical absence without a signed doctors note is not tolerated and a registration (yes, seriously) is taken during some point of the class. I use the word class rather than lecture throughout I feel it is more appropriate given the system is more school-like than that of one that should be in an institute for adult higher education. Under Bologna you are not permitted to pass the module if you have more than the permitted amount of absences from each module, and this writer for one spent many an early morning groggily chugging down big bottles of water and espresso coffees to avoid the, quite frankly embarrassing fate of being told you’ve missed class too many times, don’t bother coming back.
Practical classes generally consist of supervised work on something that you have prepared the week before the class, which you hand over to the professor for marking, and the cycle is repeated week after week. A mark is given for each class, and if you don’t pass the practical part of the module, you can’t pass the module full stop. Not even if you get 100% in the exam – it’s that simple. The practical modules can be a drag on students as often they are asked to read several chapters, if not an entire book for the next class. I personally had a module where we were asked to read two 400 plus page books for next weeks lesson, something I’d find pretty daunting in English. Needless to say, I scheduled an appointment at my local centro de salud for the exact time and day of said class before dropping out of the module soon after.
The lecturers seem to forget that students have four other modules for which they also may have to do a lot of work, putting an incredible amount of strain on students who, let’s not forget, have the right to a life outside of the faculty doors. “It’s an utter joke, this” said one of my classmates, “I want to go to the language college (an activity growing ever more popular as job prospects diminish) and learn English, but I can’t as I’m always doing ‘homework’ or reading”. Another added “I’m lucky that I live with my parents. I know a lot of people who need to work to help whilst living away from home but can’t because (of the university)”. Indeed, a lot of students feel patronised by the system of education and feel they are being treated like children, still in secondary school, joking they may get a detention for not doing their so called ‘homework’.
It becomes obvious that under the academic umbrella of Bologna, in Spain students are not afforded the luxury of free time (something we take for granted) that is enjoyed in British universities, with part-time jobs, social lives and general pursuance of other extra-curricular activities extremely difficult to combine with degrees, especially in my faculty where the workload is demanding, with many classes starting at 8am, and going on until as late as 9pm.
I therefore return with a completely new al revés outlook on both the Spanish and English higher education systems. Maybe our home universities aren’t all work, work, work after all, and are in fact more fiesta, siesta y un poquito de estudio than we realise. It’s just a shame I’ll be leaving the tapas behind.