January 2014


The Catalan university system (CUS) and the challenge of the internationalisation of higher education

Sebastián Rodríguez Espinar - Professor Emeritus, University of Barcelona (UB), and advisor on innovation and development in quality assurance to AQU Catalunya

There is no doubt that the process of globalisation is affecting, and will increasingly affect, university systems around the world. The internationalisation of higher education, which began with arguments of cooperation and aid to developing countries (fellowship programmes), has turned into a multi-million dollar business in which competition is becoming increasingly refined in order to "win customers": action plans at national level (e.g. Australia and Canada), strategic alliances between HEIs1 and programmes for "multiple exchanges of goods and services" between countries all rule the day. As various experts, concerned about allegations of fraud in relation to the award of "international" degrees (e.g. double degrees) have pointed out, and to paraphrase the words of Philip Altbach, director of the Center for Higher Education at Boston College, a certain "chaos" has become evident in the world university system.

Internacionalització de l'educació superiorThe way in which each system reacts to this "new wave" depends on numerous factors of a political, structural (e.g. joint higher education areas), as well as a forward-looking nature. In the report "Crucial issues facing Spanish universities in 2013" (Temas candentes de la Universidad Española de 2013), by PwC, it is suggested that one of the outstanding challenges is internationalisation. A recent press release of the Secretaría General de Universidades however announced the closure of the body responsible for promoting Spanish universities abroad (Fundación para la Proyección Internacional de las Universidades Españolas, www.universidades.es), which was formally set up on 23 December 2008, with the transfer of its powers going to the Organismo Autónomo de Programas Educativos Europeos (OAPEE). All of this is a consequence of the Report on the Reform of the Spanish Public Administrations (CORA). In Catalonia nothings needs to be closed as there is no such thing for such a mission.

It is important to distinguish between the provision of an international curriculum (in any field or discipline) and the enrolment of international students; the latter obviously encourages and calls for the former. "An internationalised curriculum will engage students with internationally informed research and cultural and linguistic diversity. It will purposefully develop their international and intercultural perspectives as global professionals and citizens" (Betty Leask, Dean of Teaching and Learning, University of South Australia).

The "international business"2 figures

In 2010, according to UNESCO, the international student population was 3.6 million (in 2004 there were 2.5 million). In ten years the number of international students has doubled (4% of all new students now study outside of their own country), with large "pockets" today in China, India and South Korea. In the group of OECD and G20 countries, 53% of all international students are from Asia, 23% from Europa, 12% from Africa, 6% from Latin America and the Caribbean, 3% from North America and 1% from Oceania. It is envisaged that by 2025, there will be more than eight million students in this situation.

Certain features of this are:

  • USA: 820,000 in the 2012-13 academic year, compared to 590,000 ten years ago, an increase in spite of the restrictions on entry visas as a consequence of the events of 9/11.
  • United Kingdom: 488,000 international students in the universities in the UK, but 571,000 taking UK degree programmes outside of the country.
  • Australia: 257,637 in 2009 compared to 105,764 ten years before. Australia has passed France as the third country with the highest number of international students.
  • Canada: The number has doubled in the last ten years (240,000) and it is anticipated to reach 450,000 in 2022 (International Education: A Key Driver of Canada’s Future Prosperity)
  • International students from China and India totalled 900,000 in 2011, and they are expected to total around 1.9 million in 2020.

Figures for Spain/Catalonia (CUS)

Table 1 shows the figures for the university system in Spain, which do not include the 37,432 students participating in the Erasmus programme (2010-2011 academic year) nor those taking non-recognised Master’s degrees (a situation that is both surprising and incomprehensible for an outside observer).

With regard to the CUS, certain questions arise of a strategic nature. These include: what level of studies should be targeted to attract students? Given that foreign students taking Master’s degrees in Catalan universities account for 27.5% of all enrolments in Master’s studies (2011-2012 academic year), which countries ("pockets") should be explored, bearing in mind the abovementioned growth forecasts. And what type of studies should be showcased?

Table 1. International students enrolled in Spanish universities

2011-2012 academic year Undergraduate (First and Second Cycles) Master’s
No. of students 53,213
(3.6% of total enrolments)
(17.6% of total enrolments)
International students attracted to Spain, according to region (Autonomous Communities)
Madrid  13,036 (24.5%) 5,119 (25.8%)
Catalonia 8,516 (16%) 4,411 (22.2%)
Valencia 7,135 (13.4%) 2,471 (12.45%)
Andalusia 6,325 (11.9%) 2,179 (11%)
Other regions 18,201 (34.2%) 5,683 (28.6%)
UE-27 38.6% 22.3%
Rest of Europe 8.2% 4.9%
Latin America and Caribbean 34.0% 54.7%
North Africa 8.7% 2.7%
Rest of Africa 3.0% 1.4%
Asia and Oceania 6.4% 11.1%
USA and Canada 1.2% 3.0%
Areas of study (1)  Male Female
Arts and Humanities 8.0% 14.1%
Social and Legal Sciences 36.1% 50.7%
Experimental Sciences 4.2% 4.0%
Health Sciences 16.0% 20.0%
Architecture and Engineering 35.6% 11.0%

(1) Figures only available for undergraduate and First and Second Cycle degrees
Compiled by the author, from Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte (2012): Datos y cifras del system universitario español. Curso 2012-2013.

What is being studied

At international level, business-related programmes come out way on top: in the USA, United Kingdom and Canada the number of foreign students taking this type of studies continues to grow, and they now account for almost 30% of all enrolments.

In Spain, in the case of undergraduate students, over 50% of all males and 50% of all female students take degrees in the Economic and Legal Sciences, and more than a third of the other male students and only 11% of all females are taking degrees in the fields of Architecture and Engineering.

Needless to say, there is great potential in the CUS, with faculties that are internationally renowned in both disciplinary fields.

The economic impact

The report, Britain's Higher Education Empire, launched jointly by Google UK and OC&C Strategy Consultants, says there is a significant opportunity for UK universities to claim their share of the international higher education market – estimated to be worth £12 billion (US$19.7 billion) by 2020. In Australia, the "exportation" of education is the country’s fourth most important export (behind steel, coal and gold), with a value of $18 billion. In Canada, where 10% of all university students are not Canadian citizens, the cost of enrolment and living costs during their stay contributes more than $8 billion to the Canadian economy.

At the top of the list, however, is the United States: for the 2012-2013 academic year, international students contributed $24 billion and 313,000 related jobs were created, according to the NAFSA report (Association of International Educators)3.

In Spain, according to information from the Fundación Universidad.es (www.universidad.es), the phenomenon of study tourism is a strategic demand sector in that, in addition to a level of spending that is above the average, journeys of this type provide tourist experiences that have a high level capacity to build "customer" loyalty. The volume of spending by this group in 2012 was more than €2 billion euros. "The main destination regions in Spain for foreign students in 2012 were Catalonia, Madrid and Andalusia", according to figures from the survey on tourist expenditure (Egatur), although the NAFSA methodology was not used to calculate this.

The way forward

A recent report by the credential-evaluating firm WES based in New York and Toronto, entitled International Student Mobility. Trends 2013: Towards Responsive Recruitment Strategies, states that there is no magic formula for achieving sustainable international student enrolment growth, especially in the unpredictable environment of globalisation, "but by implementing a holistic strategy based on technology, partnerships, and research, institutions can make their international student recruitment responsive and productive".

To sum up, universities and HEIs should:

  • Have a clear, well-structured internationalisation strategy as to one that is either haphazard or based on opportunities for an "agreement".
  • Take certain risks and pledge to act, with a corporate vision that is willing to change and innovate.
  • Provide resources for internationalisation, fundamentally senior academic staff with an "image", abilities of internal leadership as well as competent technical support (business know-how).
  • Adopt a commercial approach to decision-making and the ability to respond quickly to challenges and opportunities.
  • Establish a wide variety of partners in different geographical locations.
  • Be flexible in terms of the design and provision of study programmes, in line with the needs of international students and different contexts.

One outstanding action in the UK offered in the country as well as in various other different countries is the International Foundation Programme (IFP), which leads to the Access to Higher Education diploma and guarantees admission to the particular university where the student takes the course. It offers both various opportunities as far as language eligibility requirements are required as well as basic preparation for certain studies. The possibility of jointly offering massive open online courses (MOOC) through the CUS is an idea that could well be set in place relatively easily.

In conclusion, there are certain issues that provide food for thought and discussion and which presuppose that the CUS does not wish to be left out of the coming wave of internationalisation nor its possible economic impact:

  • Would it be possible to establish real and effective cooperation between the universities in the Catalan university system so that an International Catalan Campus can be set up?
  • Would it be a good idea to set up one single-entry website similar to those set up in various countries that is specifically of an international scope?4
  • Can a joint action plan be established to penetrate the international market of higher education?
  • Should there be an up-to-date map on the internationalisation of the CUS?
  • How useful would it be for a joint report to be drawn up on the economic impact of the internationalisation of the CUS?

Given the time that has passed since I first started to write this article, I took advantage of my New Year’s resolution to reaffirm my wishes from before. All that we are left with, as activists in reserve, is our enthusiasm, so a successful 2014 to you all! 


1 Various recent examples and documents on the subject:
- The Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU, 1913): "The World Beyond 2015: Is higher education ready?"(2013).
- The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (ACU + UK (150 members from 25 countries) offering more than 200 programmes in International Branch Campuses.
- League of European Research Universities (LERU, 2002): International Curricula and Student Mobility (2013)
Other institutions and networks: Universitas 21 and the Association of Pacific Rim Universities, set up in 1997, Worldwide Universities Network established in 2000. EU and Latin America and the Caribbean (Alfa Puentes project). EUROMED Permanent University Forum.

2 There is a problem when accounting for "international students", given the wide variety of types: those on mobility programmes (e.g. Erasmus), those enrolled in a full course or degree (undergraduate or postgraduate), those enrolled in special programmes (e.g. languages), with international work experience, etc. Hence the Atlas project (www.iie.org/Research-and-Publications/Project-Atlas), which is the result of international cooperation on data on people from more than twenty countries, including the USA, UK, France, Germany, China and Australia. This is probably the most extensive, if not the only, global survey on student data specifically compiling information on international students. Spain however does not participate in it. It would be highly advisable for there to be an "international CUS map", which of course includes students taking non-recognised Master’s degrees. The Institute of International Education’s Open Doors reports (Open Doors Data, USA) are a good example of this (www.iie.org/Research-and-Publications/Open-Doors/Data).

3 See http://www.nafsa.org/economicvalue for a more in-depth discussion on the research methodology and to use the NAFSA’s new interactive "International Student Economic Value Tool", which produces a detailed regional, state-by-state, and congressional district analysis on the economic benefits of spending by international students and their dependents to the US economy.

Some examples: British Council (www.educationuk.org/global/), Study in Finland (www.studyinfinland.fi/) and iStudentCanada (www.istudentcanada.com, an interactive website aimed at international students studying in Canada and Canadian students studying or working abroad, started in November 2013).


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