Bleak November descends upon Britain. The sun, by contrast, illuminates a cerulean sky in Zaragoza Spain. That, in summary, is my take on British higher education.
This is a love letter to the Spanish universities. In fact many would sign this letter with a ‘yours sincerely’ as according to the Guardian, Spain is consistently the most popular place to study for Erasmus students. This letter therefore is the much needed capturing of the European student zeitgeist; the word is being spread, Spain is the place to study. A reductive answer would owe this to the hedonistic student lifestyle Spain has to offer but I argue that it is the quality of the scholastic experience that exonerates Spain’s educational reputation.
Bath University is about number crunching. We all spend our time tallying our grades in edexcel spread sheeting galore. This of course had a lot to do with money. You can’t be failing when you pay nine grand a year, especially if you come from the working class.
When I told my fellow Spanish students I pay nine grand they nodded and said I must go to a private university. When I said private universities don’t exist in Britain, they spat out their food and said in between expletives that Britain should protest. “As if that would work” I thought, casting my mind back to the abundant student protests of late that had proven ineffectual on the stony heart of government.
Learning is a process beyond the classroom and not just a process, a passion. Your commitment to that passion produces a desirable degree but it’s hard to be passionate when the system is working against you. In short, Spain is encouraging learning for the sake of learning, not for the sake of a future mortgage. In Zaragoza University, when I see an essay deadline or a subject topic, an exam date or reading list, I can hear myself breathe knowing that I can just learn and not have all the answers within academia and beyond. My optimistic curiosity is no longer occluded by the visions of interest rates, and disappointed families, and lost career opportunities even though I don’t know what job I want yet and should I know? I’m still only twenty.
The differences don’t end there. The teachers here are teachers first and academics second. Any university of some repute needs knowledgeable academics in their field but beyond that, they need articulate communicators. Teaching, like languages, is the art of translating. No knowledge electrifies the mind so viscerally than when it is embellished by rich language.
This is alloyed to another great Spanish teaching commandment British universities lack: thou shalt not fear. Spanish students speak up and do not omit their burgeoning curiosity for fear of being wrong. In Bath, when the lecturer asks if there are any questions, tumbleweed rolls across the lines of laptops. In Zaragoza, Spanish students do not swallow their inquisitive nature because the teacher prevents them from doing so. My teachers have spoken beyond academic vernacular into the subtle language of mutual understanding. It says, “I’m human you’re human so let’s get it wrong together”. It’s not uncommon to hear the students call their teacher ‘tio’ (spanish slang for mate) and this socio linguistic barrier breaking alludes to the rupture of another one; that in essence the student has as much to teach the teacher as the teacher does the student.
This brings us to the overall triumph of the Spanish educational model: that learning happens in the collective. When I arrived at Zaragoza Uni, I was transported back to secondary school. Not only because I was studying with seventeen year olds but also because of my timetable. It was and is littered with contact time. At first I was appalled but have since grown to like this system. The amount of time I spent in the library in Bath, staring from my book to my fellow students in an isolated hell of anxiety, marking my own work, wondering if anyone was struggling with me, and wondering who would beat me in the rat race cannot be counted. In Zaragoza this school room didacticism highlighted educational conditions that arguably enhance the learning process. Firstly, these regular contact hours that force you to frequent the osmosis of ideas between teacher and pupil is not spoon feeding but enthusing; and even it is, is shows a commitment to the students worthier of an extortionate price tag like nine grand. And that more importantly, there is a holy trinity to learning: a room, an accessible erudite teacher and students. For roughly one thousand and two hundred and fifty pounds young Spaniards get all that and leave prepared for adult life. Why is at Bath the nine grand I have spent has given me Moodle and nothing else? Britain is better at other specific elements at University such as the student unions but Spain may the blueprint for teaching that with fees increasing, Bath and others desperately needs. The question therein lies, is there an adult to listen to a student such as myself who will reverse the corrosive effects the fees have had on our faith that a degree opens any door that isn’t the cleaning cupboard.