Something different everywhere you turn


  • Education
  • Sunday, 22 Jun 2003

By CHOO HOOI PENG

With a university system dating back to the Middle Ages, Spain offers excellent tertiary education in a diverse range of subjects from architecture to biotechnology. 

ESPAرA or Spain – Land of the Conquistadors (conquerors) and Don Quixote – famous for its matadors, flamenco dances, guitar craftsmen, delicate laces, red wine, Valencia oranges and, more recently, rich football clubs (think Real Madrid and Barcelona). 

It is a country which has produced world-renowned figures, such as explorer Christopher Columbus, artists Goya, Picasso, Velلzquez, and Dali; architects Antonio Gaudي and Ricardo Bofill; and actor Antonio Banderas. 

It is also one of the three most popular tourist destinations in the world. Every year, more than 50 million visitors flock to Spain, as much attracted by its unique history and culture as they are by its diverse climate, sun-drenched beaches, friendly locals, sumptuous food, and fun-filled fiestas

All of these appealing features, coupled with age-old universities of venerable reputation, make Spain a worthwhile destination for students who want to pursue a European degree in a country with the high European standard of living but at a relatively lower cost. 

'Many countries in one'  

Spain is located in south-western Europe in the Iberian peninsula. It is bordered by France and Andorra in the north, and Portugal in the west and south, and separated from the African continent by the Straits of Gibraltar. 

The country is made up of Peninsular Spain, Balearic Islands, Canary Islands and two Spanish cities, Ceuta and Melilla, in northern Africa. Spain is spread over 505,957 sq km, making it the third largest country in the European continent after the Community of Independent States and France. 

AUGUST INSTITUTION: Founded in 1218, Universidad de Salamanca is the oldest university in Spain.

Contrary to the song in My Fair Lady, the rain in Spain does not fall mainly on the plain. Because of its size and geographical location, Spain has a diverse climate and countryside, ranging from the green and rainy mountainous region in the north, to the extreme high and low temperatures in the interior and the Mediterranean south and east. 

Spain has a long and unique history. It was invaded by the Celts (1,200 BC), followed by the Phoenicians and Greeks (1,100BC), Carthaginians, Romans, Goths, and Moors, whose 700-year Muslim reign was ended in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabel of Aragon. 

The result is that Spain is a cultural melting pot, having the third highest number of sites on the Unesco World Heritage list (36). 

Because of this, says Francisco Aquilera, first secretary and deputy head of mission at the Embassy of Spain in Kuala Lumpur, Spanish culture and arts are “second to none”, and a powerful source of enrichment for students who study there. 

He adds: “Spain is a heterogeneous country. Depending on the place (you’re in), you’re going to find something completely different.  

“There is a wide variety of landscape, monuments, culture, food, provisions, ways of living and every kind of activity wherever you go. In this respect, there are many countries in one single country.” 

This, says Aquilera, makes student life in Spain varied, fun and interesting. “And because you get to experience it, you’ll take it with you when you leave. 

“In a way, you’re going to learn something whatever you do.” 

A different world 

Malaysian Wong Chin Mee, who studied for two years for a Masters in International Relations and Communication at Universidad Complutense de Madrid, agrees with Aquilera. 

She found studying and living in Spain an altogether unique experience. “I had the opportunity to learn and know their culture and language first-hand. The famous paintings by Velلzquez, Picasso, Goya, Miro and Dali are exquisite pieces of artwork; and I will never forget the beauty of the historical buildings, especially the Roman and Gothic,” she rhapsodises. 

For Tang Lee Sheen, who went to Spain for the first time last year for an intensive course in Spanish language and culture at Universidad de Murcia, Spain was nothing like what she had expected. 

Sheenie, as she prefers to be called, had her first “lesson on Spain” even before her plane landed at the airport in Madrid. Assuming that Spain is a country of “flat, green land”, she was stunned to see arid landscape when she looked out the window. 

Her second “surprise”, a nasty one, came minutes later.  

Sheenie relates her misadventure: “I had to find my way from the airport to the university. I arrived at the airport only to find that there was no train to Murcia on that day, so I ended up spending a cold, sleepless night at the airport.” 

Still, despite her unlucky start, the intrepid student found her one-month stay to be estupendo (stupendous). “I’ve been to Australia, England and Austria, but Spain is a place unlike others. 

“I think because Spain is the only European country that was conquered and occupied by Muslims for a long time, there is a very different and unique ‘flavour’ to it.” Thus, Malaysian exchange student Kasma Mohd Hayas did not lack a mosque in which to pray. 

Being typical Malaysians, both Chin Mee and Sheenie list food as another plus factor for studying in Spain.  

ISLAMIC HERITAGE: The famed Alhambra in Granada is an impressive example of Moorish architecture.

“I love the food, especially the paella, which is a Spanish dish consisting of rice mixed with vegetables, seafood and chicken. It really suits our Malaysian palate,” says Chin Mee. 

Even Kasma had little problem with the local cuisine during her one-year sojourn on the campus of Universidad Autَnoma de Madrid, although the hostel where she stayed did not provide halal fare for its residents. 

“Most of the dishes comprise seafood anyway, so they were essentially pork-free. Breakfast was a breeze and healthy too as the people there eat bread every morning,” recalls Kasma, adding that she eventually found a place to buy halal meat, a shop specialising in Asian food products. 

University reforms 

Higher education in Spain is provided by both public and private universities, which are divided into departments, faculties, escuelas tecnicas superiores, escuelas universitarias, insitutos universitarios, university colleges and other centres. 

Although university activities are co-ordinated by the Education Ministry and guidelines for the creation of universities, institutes and centres are established by the University Council, Spanish universities have administrative, financial and academic autonomy which is legislated. 

While the Spanish university system dates back to the Middle Ages, with the oldest university, Salamanca, founded in 1218, the present structure is actually based on the 19th century French model of a centralised liberal university. 

However, in the last few decades, the system underwent a series of reforms, the most notable being the Act of University Reform in 1983. 

As a result, university education follows two tracks – single cycle and three cycles. 

Single-cycle studies usually run for three years and lead directly to professional qualifications whereas under the three-cycle track, higher education is divided into three levels of studies and qualifications: 

  • first cycle courses which last three years and lead to a diploma;  

  • second cycle studies where, after completing the first cycle, students study another year or two to specialise before graduating with a bachelor with honours; and, lastly, 

  • the doctorate level where students undertake another two years of studies and write a thesis. 

    The Spanish university system may seem complicated to the Malaysian student but it offers many fields of studies for a wide range of interests, says Aquilera. “If you’re looking at business studies, Spain has three business schools which have been listed by the Financial Times as among the top in the world. The field of biotechnology is very much developed in Spain, and the same applies to biology and the sea sciences.” 

    Students, he adds, may also want to consider pursuing a degree in architecture in Spain. Says Aquilera: “There are a number of Spaniards who are well-known worldwide for their architectural designs. Of course we have a lot of historical architecture in the country but the story doesn’t end there. There are plenty of ideas and concept developments (in architecture) happening in Spain, especially in Barcelona, which is famous for modern architecture.” 

    Marketable language  

    Although classes in university are not taught in English and students have to learn their subjects in Spanish, Aquilera believes that the language factor, far from being a barrier, is another element that students can turn to their advantage. 

    Spanish is spoken by more than 500 million people worldwide and is the official language of 21 other countries, with over 350 million speakers. It is an official language in many international organisations such as the United Nations, and is widely used in the world of art and tourism. It is also the second most used language in international communication. 

    SCENIC SPAIN: The Toledo Bridge, which spans the Manzanares River, is a pedestrian-only gateway to the famous town of Toledo.

    As such, says Aquilera, there is a huge potential market for people who can speak Spanish in addition to English. 

    Chin Mee says it is not difficult for Malaysians to pick up Spanish as its pronunciation is like our baku system. 

    “It’s just like learning Bahasa Melayu!” says Chin Mee, whose fluency in the language helped her get a job at the Kuala Lumpur office of a Spanish company dealing in shipbuilding. 

    Cost of living  

    Besides culture and language, Aquilera maintains that Spain offers a high standard of living at a comparably lower price than its European counterparts. 

    “Of course, compared to Malaysia and some countries in Asia, Spain will be more expensive, but if you compare it to other countries in Europe, the cost of studying in Spain is not so bad.” 

    Sheenie concurs. She says at her university in the Murcia “countryside”, 300 euros (RM1,350) a month was enough for general living expenses, decent accommodation, books and even a little shopping. 

    “Breakfast only costs 20 cents (90 sen), which is the price of a bun. One can even get a nice dress for four euros (RM18).” 

    On the other hand, life in the upscale city of Madrid was a bit of a struggle for Masni Mansor, who also studied at Universidad Autَnoma de Madrid on a student exchange programme. She found her monthly scholarship of 200 euros (RM900) merely enough “for survival”. 

    Like anywhere else, the cost of living in Spain differs according to the location, whether it is rural or urban. “But generally, for a comfortable amount of money, you can find a nice place to stay, with good facilities,” Aquilera says, estimating that it will cost a foreign student about 9,000 euros (RM40,590) a year to study in a public university in Spain. 

    In return, he declares, the student will not only get quality tertiary education, but experience university life that “is so lively, so intense, and so full of events in every respect that there is no reason for him not to enjoy it.” 

    “Spain is not a society where you are expected to be alone, but then it doesn’t mean that they are going to invade your privacy either; so you get to keep your privacy and yet take part in the local culture and life,” says Aquilera. 

    He likens life with the locals in Spain to a merry-go-round, where human interaction is intense, activities countless and experiences enriching. “This is actually a part of life and part of the culture everywhere in Spain.” 

    Chin Mee attempts to provide an insight into the Spaniard’s philosophy of life: “There is a Spanish saying, Trabajar es para vivir. It means that one should work in order to live and at the same time, one should also enjoy one’s life. To the Spaniards, the quality of life, friends and family are important; a person should know how to enjoy the pleasant things in life and not just work all the time. 

    “Take their everyday life, for example. They (the Spaniards) love to relax and it is their habit to take a siesta around 2pm to 5pm in the afternoon, especially after lunch. So, office hours in Spain generally are from 9am to 2pm, and 5pm to 8pm.” 

    Sheenie, too, found the Spaniards to be expressive and outspoken. The 25-year-old so enjoyed her stint in Spain, she is planning to return to do her Master’s.  

    “I have become so much more self-confident and assured now (after my time in Spain). I have also learnt to be very independent, resourceful, and flexible in adapting to different surroundings. It’s true, my experiences in Spain have enriched my life.” 

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