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Instituto Valenciano de Investigaciones Económicas


Number of degrees offered at Spanish universities has increased by 44% over the last decade, but 46.8% of new degrees have less than 25 students in the first year

Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya and Universidad Carlos III de Madrid top the performance ranking of U-Ranking 2021

Universitat Pompeu Fabra continues to stand in first place in the new edition of U-Ranking 2021, but, for the first time, it shares ranks with two other universities: Universidad Carlos III de Madrid and Politècnica de Catalunya. Following this top group are Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and Politècnica de València. Behind them is a group of seven universities which includes the first private universities in the ranking, Universidad de Deusto and Universidad de Navarra, along with Autónoma de Madrid, Universidad de Cantabria, Politécnica de Madrid, Universitat de Barcelona and Universitat Rovira i Virgili.

The U-Ranking Project, developed by the BBVA Foundation and the Ivie, has just released the results of its 9th edition which classifies Spanish universities according to their teaching performance and innovative and research activity. According to the results, public universities occupy 10 of the top 12 positions in the overall ranking. However, the results change when teaching and research and innovation performance are considered separately, in which case, private universities stand out in terms of teaching results. Among the eight top universities in the teaching ranking, five are private (Universidad de Navarra, Universidad Europea de Madrid, Internacional de La Rioja, Nebrija and Ramon Llull) and three are public (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid and the Polytechnic Universities of Catalonia and Valencia). The overall performance of private universities in the area of teaching is eleven points higher than the average of public universities.

On the other hand, the performance of public universities in research and innovation is on average 47 points above that of private ones. The research and innovation performance ranking is led by three Catalan public universities, in which Universitat Pompeu Fabra ranks first, followed by Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona and Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya. The first private university in the list of research and innovation performance is Universidad de Deusto which appears after ten public institutions.

Evolution of university degrees

U-Ranking 2021 also includes a specific analysis of the changes experienced over the last decade in the degrees offered at Spanish universities. Between the 2010-11 and 2020-21 academic years, 1,760 new degrees were added, and 629 existing ones were eliminated, which makes a total of 1,131 more degrees offered in the last academic year than in the beginning of the period considered, i.e., 44.4% increase. In total, the percentage of current degrees that were created less than ten years ago account for 40.9% of the total number of degrees offered. Most of the degrees already existed in the Spanish University System, because, although they were offered for the first time in a particular university, they were already available in another. However, 190 have been newly created and never offered before in any of the universities that make up the Spanish University System. Of these newly created degrees, which represent 13% of new degrees, 20% are double degrees and 80% are new degrees. One of the main objectives in the changes in degrees is to respond to the demands and preferences of students and the labor market.

Both public and private universities have strongly began to implement new degrees. However, although the total volume of new degrees is greater in public universities, with 717 new degrees created in the last decade, private universities have experienced a greater growth, mainly due to the fact that many of them are new universities and are in the process of preparing their list of degrees. Private universities have increased by 41% the number of degrees currently offer to almost a thousand (999), compared to 584 in the 2010-11 academic year. At the moment, of the total number of degrees offered by private institutions, 62.4% are newly created ones. In the case of public institutions, they have increased by 27% their offerings from 1,963 degrees to 2,680. The percentage of new degrees out of the total stands at 33.4%.

The creation of new degrees has taken place in a period characterized by a 6.2% drop in the number of new students entering the Spanish University System since the 2013-14 academic year (no previous data is available to carry out the analysis), which has resulted in more competition to attract students. During the last decade, private ones have been deploying their new offerings more intensively than public ones, which may have contributed to an increase in enrollment of 40% during this period, despite adverse demographics. In contrast, enrollment at public universities has dropped by 13%, although they continue to attract 81.4% of new university students.

Another reason for the increase in the number of degrees and the decrease in the number of students is the increase in degrees with a low number of enrollments. For example, in the 2020-21 academic year, 891 degrees offered at on-site universities of the Spanish University System had less than 25 students enrolled in the first year, which account for 25.8% of total degrees. This percentage is troubling, as well as the fact that this tendency may continue to increase in the future. Of these degrees with few students, 537 are offered in public universities and 354 in private ones, representing 20.5% and 42.8% of the degree offerings in public and private on-site universities, respectively. These very high percentages increase even more in the case of new degrees, among which degrees with fewer than 25 students account for 46.8%, a tendency that is not decreasing. The cost and dispersion of this part of the new offer is questionable, but is not less worrying than the large number of “mini degrees” that have existed for some time among the initial degrees (12.8% in public and 31.6% in private ones).

The problem is complex and needs to be treated by each university, as there is a great deal of case studies. But the data presented indicates that there are many degrees with 25 or less students in the first year and, although there may be reasons to continue offering these degrees (for example, a need to train specialists in certain fields in Spain, at least in one university, or because they are a derivation of a larger one), in other cases there is probably no reason to maintain them.

17 June 2021