This week, Bob Burger, Marketing Director of Spanish language school Malaca Instituto, provides a guide to changes in entry to Spain’s higher education system for international students

Entry routes to Undergraduate Degrees in Spain

Over a year ago the Spanish government announced it would get rid of Selectividad – the entry exam for Spanish undergraduate degrees, more correctly known as PAU.

This information was immediately passed to the national and international press and the specialist study abroad media. Unfortunately what was not clearly stated was that this would not happen until 2017 and that the exam will still take place at least up to and including 2016!

The UNED (Spain’s national distance university which has been responsible for the PAU for overseas students) has confirmed to us that they will definitely be offering the exam, as usual, in 2016. They tell us that in 2015 the majority of Spain’s public universities used Selectividad as their entry criteria and fully expect them to do the same again in 2016.

All of this has caused quite a degree of confusion and uncertainty in the market place. I will now try to give an objective and reasoned view of the current situation and how it might unfold.

The PAU (Prueba de Acceso a la Universidad) – colloquially known as Selectividad, its old name – has been the main entry route for Spanish and overseas students to undergraduate degrees at Spanish universities for many years. There have been other possible routes such as IB exams, certain vocational training programmes, transferring from an overseas university and, in recent years, using equivalent examinations from other EU countries. However, Selectividad has been the primary route and, it seems, for the moment, it still is.

Over the last couple of years the question of a university entry exam for Spanish students has become a political issue with the students asking why students from other EU countries can enter Spanish university with, for example, A-levels from the UK or Abitur from Germany, when they themselves have to take their Bachillerato to finish high school and then Selectividad to go to university – an understandable complaint!

The major problem seems to have been that the Government did not allow sufficient time for an alternative selection process to be fully developed and Spain has entered a transition phase which is due, subject to political changes, to come to an end in 2017. By this time there should be a fully developed alternative entry procedure well in place.

In this transition phase, the exam is not compulsory and there are other possible ways to enter some undergraduate degrees in Spain. However, the reality of  the situation appears to be that if non-EU students (with the exception of Norway and China) want to be guaranteed a place on the course of their choice, the only sure way to do so is by passing Selectividad with the marks required. Non-EU overseas students, without PAU/Selectividad are being used to fill up any remaining places in October and frequently won’t know if they have a place until a couple of days before the start of term.

At Malaca Instituto, we prefer to promote a tried and tested access route which will enable successful students to have their university place guaranteed by the end of July, in the first phase of enrolments when all courses are available. We feel that it is important that potential students are fully informed of the situation so that there are no surprises later.

So, what, exactly, is this PAU or Selectividad Exam that has created all the fuss?

  • A two-phase written exam over a couple of days.
  • One exam for Spanish students and a slightly different variant for overseas students
  • The overseas variant is organised by the UNED (there are exam centres in various Spanish cities, including Malaga)
  • It takes place at the start of June and again, for retakes, in September
  • Students choose a particular branch of subjects, most related to the type of degree they want. 
  • The first phase is obligatory and most general; including Spanish language, a European language (English being most popular), history or philosophy and then a main subject.
  • The second phase is optional but, as it can raise your marks, necessary to enter very popular subjects.
  • The results come out quite quickly (before the end of June) and anyone who scores an average mark (taking into account their high school marks as well) of five or more is guaranteed a place at university. The actual place depends on the popularity of the course and the student’s marks.

Malaca Instituto is one of several Spanish language schools offering preparation which typically consists of an academic year combining intensive Spanish and subject study. Students from non-European languages may need more time and other students with a good, previous knowledge of Spanish may need less time.

Why study at university in Spain?

All of the above actually presumes that overseas students want to study in Spain.  And, yes, they do! Spain has a wide selection of public universities, some amongst the oldest and most famous in the world, and, at least for the moment, Spanish university fees remain at a very reasonable level for both Spaniards and overseas students. Add to this the popularity of Spanish and Spain and the fact that Spanish is the world’s second language of business communication and the reasons for this demand become obvious.

What happens next?

The real answer is no-one really knows. There’s an election coming up in November and education will be an issue. If the current government wins, Selectividad probably disappears in 2017. Some kind of selection process will be needed to replace it and most people in Spain seem to believe that this will include some kind of exam system, organised and implemented at university level, or more likely, at regional level – regional governments have a high degree of autonomy over education issues.

Whatever the system, what is sure is that schools such as Malaca instituto will continue to prepare students who want to access degree programmes  in Spain, whether undergraduate or graduate, and discerning students and their parents will choose the quality programmes they offer.

This article complements a special feature on non-English pathway programmes in the September issue of StudyTravel Magazine, which provides school and agent feedback and information on international students preparing for university programmes in French, German and Spanish.  


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