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The internationalization of higher education, an opportunity for Barcelona

The internationalization of higher education, an opportunity for Barcelona

Higher education has become one of the most dynamic sectors in the global economy. If Barcelona were prepared to make it a top priority, it could well become a great source of talent and quality employment.


The internationalization of higher education was growing rapidly before the pandemic and everything indicates that it will continue to be one of the most dynamic and fastest-growing sectors in the future. Millions of students decide each year where they would like to pursue a bachelor's or master's degree, and more and more cities and countries have identified the sector as an opportunity for development, job creation, and the attraction and retention of talent.

Despite the fact that more and more students are attracted to the city and are choosing to continue their education here, Barcelona is not taking full advantage of its potential and is still far from being considered an international higher education hub. Cities such as Singapore, Shanghai, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam have already implemented a comprehensive long-term plan that has put them at the same level as other traditional international higher education hubs such as London, Boston, and San Francisco.

What is the first thing to consider when one goes to live, study, or work in another city? Barcelona offers many features that make it an attractive city for students: its quality of life, its strategic location, and its increasingly palpable international flavor have led it to rank 21st in the QS Best Student Cities globally, 7th in Europe.

Students looking for a place to do their degrees base their choice on the quality and prestige of the qualification; this makes them the best barometer for gauging the degree of a system’s internationalization. They make a huge impact on their host country, both in economic terms and in many other aspects. And they are not only long-term visitors; they bring talent to the city at a time when talent should be the basis of our economy.

It is for this reason that Barcelona Global has brought out a report entitled The challenge of positioning Barcelona as a destination for international undergraduate and graduate students whose aim is to define and promote the steps needed to turn Barcelona into a global higher education hub. If achieved, this would go a long way to improving our university system, creating opportunities for our citizens, and making a tremendous impact on the economy.


Barcelona’s great potential

Barcelona has competitive programs and its universities have a large number of foreign students, but we are still a long way behind the international leaders. Barcelona’s main strengths include:

  • Numerous research institutions based in the Barcelona metropolitan area and excellent master's and doctoral degrees, mainly in the fields of biomedicine, physics, business, and economics.
  • Three of the best business schools in the world: IESE, ESADE and EADA are ranked 1st, 20th and 39th respectively in The Economist's ranking of the best MBA programs in the world. The number of international students in our universities, especially in masters and postgraduate programs, continues to grow.
  • Barcelona has a very competitive cost structure compared to the main international higher education hubs.
  • Barcelona has an excellent infrastructure for tourism and business travel and conventions, which could be adapted in the event of a general reduction in international mobility due to Covid-19.


The major challenges faced by the city

Barcelona must nevertheless overcome certain limitations if it is to get the most out of its strengths:

  • The city has no long-term policy to promote internationalization, competitiveness and excellence in higher education.
  • The university system is not completely free to define its own strategies for attracting international faculty and students.
  • It can be difficult to obtain visas and there are differences in grants for international and local students.
  • There is limited public sector investment in higher education.

In order to create a favorable regulatory framework, reforms are needed in two major areas: (1) reform of the university system, endowing its universities with strong governance and the autonomy to define their own strategies, select and promote faculty, invest in disciplinary and multidisciplinary initiatives, and attract students; (2) reduction of limitations on the free entry of international students, both in terms of university access and migration policies.


5 models to learn from

Barcelona should learn from international models that have been successful. These include:

  1. Attracting a world-famous university to provide visibility and in turn attract other institutions. Institutions in the United States, the United Kingdom and China such as Yale, New York University, and Fudan are already showing a growing interest in Europe.
  2. Creating a liberal arts college, a key form of higher education that offers multidisciplinary education. Examples include Bard College in Berlin and Amsterdam University College in Europe. As yet there are no liberal arts colleges in Spain.
  3. Boosting first-rank professional education, especially in STEM subjects.
  4. Encouraging research collaborations between our best research centers and international leaders.
  5. Creating a campus for a European Universities Initiative, one of the flagship programs of the European Commission. Four universities in Barcelona (UAB, UB, UPC, and UPF) are already participating in the program.


Opportunity for Barcelona

This is an opportunity for Barcelona to become a highly attractive university city for global talent and to open up a world of opportunities for the city. This includes:

  • Attraction of talent for our businesses. After living in Barcelona during their education, talented professionals may well settle in the city and work in our businesses and research centers or start new businesses.
  • A major economic impact derived from students’ residence in Barcelona, including registration costs, rentals, transportation, lodging, leisure, culture, and recommendations to further visitors.
  • The creation of a network of alumni educated in Barcelona who, in their professional activities, can act as great ambassadors for the city throughout the world.
  • Improvement of the excellent academic institutions which the people of Barcelona have access to, and greater opportunities for our academics by the increase in demand for education professionals.
  • Improvement in the perception of Barcelona as a city of talent by being recognized internationally as a city of education, similar to Boston, London, Oxford and Cambridge, etc.
  • The positive impact on quality and recognition of the local universities and higher education sector.

Barcelona must make a clear commitment to becoming a higher education hub. This goal will be reached if it enhances all the strengths of Greater Barcelona, a city that is already strong in research, has excellent masters and postgraduate programs, a highly competitive cost structure, and outstanding tourism and cultural facilities.

The city has the makings of a great higher education hub; all that is now needed is the will to execute a long-term plan.


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