I wasn’t sure exactly what to write about for this ‘blog’ this is a dangerous way to start any written activity as you can quite easily end up writing about everything instead of something. Low and behold this is more or less what I have ended up doing. Put simply I ended up just regurgitating lots of different conversations ‘old content’ I have had over the last 5 months in Madrid to try and make it look like something new and original ‘fresh original content’. Welcome to the world of 21st century ‘journalism’ ladies and gentlemen. Anyway, I am not sure how long it will take you to read this (and I am not going to have the cheek to tell you how long you should take to read it as many media websites do these days). What may help though is if I provide a short index in case you want to skip to the bits you think you will find most interesting.
1 About me
Hi, I am Leo I am originally from Ireland and moved to Madrid from Medellin, Colombia in January and have been teaching Economic Theory 2 for the past semester. I am going to tell you a little bit about my first impressions of Madrid, how I have found living in Spain and my experiences working at CEU. Like many other Irish (and our less fun neighbours on the bigger Island beside ours) I have been coming to Spain for as literally as long as I can remember. Now, we can debate if going to the Costa del Sol really counts as going to Spain but nonetheless, I would like to think I have had some exposure to Spanish culture before arriving very suddenly and totally unprepared for the cold weather in late January.
A common question I am asked is how similar Spain Is to Colombia. Unsurprisingly the culture is more similar relative to that of Ireland or England. However, an equal point is that the culture of the United States is more similar to Ireland/England than Spain which again is probably true. The important point to make is that whilst it is easy to point out similarities it is just as easy to point out the vast chasm of differences that exist between these different countries. In my opinion, once you factor out language there are in fact far more similarities between Ireland and Spain than Spain and Colombia or Ireland and America. We are all Europeans after all and our shared history and emigration over the last few hundred/thousands of years, in fact, I believe makes us far more similar to what may initially meet the eye.
If you have somehow managed to not check the news for the last 3 years you may not have heard of this minor political problem called Brexit. If you are one of these people firstly congratulations secondly how did you do it as Theresa May’s face made the front page of the main Colombian newspaper? Anyway, let’s not get started on Brexit as this is meant to be a ‘blog’ and if we go down that road we could quite easily end up in ‘thesis territory’. Anyway, without reverting to the lovely vocabulary of trade economics basically, the situation is that when your largest trade partner (by far) shoots itself in the foot what can happen is that the bullet goes through its foot and into your body, wounding you critically. This is basically the case of Ireland and Britain at the moment not to mention the real bullets that Brexit could quite easily bring back to Northern Ireland. Why I am talking about ever pervasive Brexit in a blog about Spain. Well, the thing I am happiest to report is my amazement at just how much knowledge the average Spaniard has of my cold rainy country.
This was made clear to me on my first day of teaching here when I asked my class to guess where I was from. Usually, people just assume you are English or possibly North American but to my amazement, my students not only correctly guessed Ireland but some even went further and said I had a strange Dublin accent. To put this into perspective I lived in England for over 10 years (hence the strange ‘watered down’ accent) and as far as I can remember no one ever placed me as a Dubliner. In fact, a more common situation was for me to say I am from Dublin and to get a response of ‘Sorry mate! I forget is that the Capital of the North or South’. Time and time again I have been amazed at my students and colleagues knowledge of Ireland. Whether it be correctly pronouncing names like Saoirse (pronounced SEER-sha) or being able to tell me the main river that runs through Cork (The Lee, a name I had forgotten even though it’s basically the same as mine). A lot of this seems to be driven by very positive experiences they have had studying English in Ireland during their teens.
I am not joking when I say how reassuring this is for me and my family when I tell them this. I have friends who work in the Irish enterprise agency and my sister will begin working with the Irish tourism board soon. For both, the main message driving each organisation now is what does Ireland do to protect itself against a fragmenting anti-EU Britain and an increasingly isolationist America. Pivoting further to continental Europe really does seem like our only option in the medium to long term. So being so warmly received by a country like Spain is reassuring for a tiny island stuck in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with a population significantly smaller than the comunidad de Madrid.
2 Spanish Work culture
So it seems a blog on Spain has ended up talking about Ireland and the Greek tragedy that is Brexit. So what is it like working here and how does it differ to Dublin, London, Melbourne, Medellin? Early on in Colombia, I noticed that it got very quiet in the afternoon so I asked if people here take siestas. A professor turned to me in shock replying No this is not Spain! Clearly, the stereotype of the Spanish siesta is one that is destined to be consigned to the history books or the rubbish pile of antiquated stereotypes. What is clear is that the Spanish place far more importance on what I have decided to call ‘active’ leisure time. This contrasts sharply with the British and Irish culture of ‘passive’ leisure time. So let’s explain this a little more. A normal week in London might be Work 9-6 (If you are lucky) come home, cook food, Sit on the sofa and watch Netflix series, repeat until Thursday where there is a slight chance of plan that involves going for a few pints, oven pizza and then Friday many pints, take-away, hangover/Saturday feeling sorry for oneself. This contrasts sharply with the average Spanish week which is usually as follows Work (Maybe even finish at 5!!) + social activity, work + fitness activity, work + sunbathing, Work + tapas and dos dobles de cerveza, pero no más.
Really is it any surprise that the Spanish have the highest life expectancy in Europe? Maybe it doesn’t make for the best results when it comes to GDP statistics but the average Spanish person I meet can be described as anything but lazy. They on average in my opinion live much more full sociable and content lives than us up on our small Northern Islands. Yes, Spain is blessed with its climate and the difference you can experience in terms of weather within a relatively small geographical area. However, at the same time, we also get sun now and again which usually means too much alcohol and quickly complaining about the heat. We could learn a lot from how the Spanish make the most of their free time all year round and have a far more balanced lifestyle.
3 Spanish attitudes
Am I being too nice surely there must be bad things about Spain as well? Of course, there are and one thing I really want to touch on is what I have called the ‘generational confidence gap’. A stereotype that I believe is a bit true (to some extent) is the Spanish slightly self-deprecating sense of humour which is that yes we do work a bit differently and yes maybe it can be a bit chaotic but we are still Spain we get things done in the end. This ‘flair’ is what makes us the home of some of the most beautiful buildings, art and food in the world. As far as I can tell this sense of ‘temperamental but talented hardworking creatives’ still exists amongst the older population. It seems though that years of brutal economic pain has seriously knocked this confidence from the younger people I have talked to here who grew up during the lost decade in Spain. It really does seem that constant economic suffering combined with large scale corruption cases has put a large dent in young Spanish people’s confidence. I know and understand this as after the Celtic Tiger got shot Ireland’s own self-confidence took a huge hit. The best cure for a country confidence crisis is not just recovery but a period of rapid growth felt by the people of the country, and in relation to this I think Ireland’s self-confidence is back and worryingly much like its property market may now be overinflated again. I do not see this amongst anyone I talk to under the age of 30 in Spain. Everyone I talk to is without a doubt very proud to be Spanish but at the same time, there is a belief that maybe Spain is falling behind and maybe emigrating to a rainy island is the best option career-wise. Unsurprisingly, I experienced a similar but far more pervasive mood amongst the youth in Colombia as well. I hope the Spanish youth get their confidence back and given Spain’s recent economic growth that does seem entirely possible. However, until the labour situation is such that a smart person, with a good degree from a good university, can get a good job at a good company there will still be a lot of youngsters soul searching on their future in Spain.
So I am currently writing this with the mercury above 35 degrees, extreme heat, in my opinion, can really drain creativity. Luckily as this is Spain it is more than socially acceptable to have beer or wine with lunch which as we all know is creativity in liquid form. The first time I saw someone drinking a can of beer in the cafeteria I was really genuinely shocked. Much like the fight or flight response seeing someone drinking alcohol at lunchtime automatically triggers a thought of ‘oh dear something must be wrong with them’. If it was England especially it wouldn’t be long before the culprit was tapped on the shoulder and would then have to go talk to his or her manager about any problems he or she was having in their personal life. Spaniards definitely take a far more grown-up attitude to drinking which is something we need to try to replicate more in Ireland & England where we really see alcohol as a legal drug as opposed to something that can complement food and be enjoyed socially in small quantities.
Unfortunately, when it comes to student motivation it is clear that this time ‘in terms of grown-up’ attitude the tables are turned. I was amazed at how much my students while all clearly friendly and nice seemed far more similar to high school students compared to students I have taught in the past and my own recollection of my own attitude to university as a 1st-year student. This was best expressed to me in a little story by another Irish professor working in Madrid. Early on in his career here he was teaching students of 3rd or possibly 4th-year level when he had to leave the room suddenly for an urgent conversation with the Dean. On the way out he said could you please finish those two questions and be ready to discuss in about 5-10 minutes. He came back 10 minutes later to a room of students talking in that uniquely brilliant Spanish way where everyone seems to be talking loudly but also somehow listening to each other at the same time. Thinking to himself that they must have finished the questions quicker than he expected he asked for some answers, not one student had even attempted to answer a question. I think everyone teaching who studied in England and/or Ireland will remember their first encounter with the surprisingly different mentality students here have to university. Mine was being asked (but more told) that I should finish early today as due to some event of some sort that afternoon they would only have, wait for it………. One hour for lunch. Poor students.
Of course, every country will differ in their students attitude towards university. In Australia due to possibly students commuting from so far every day the atmosphere was more like one you would expect on an adult education night course, people came to their lecture took notes, didn’t talk to each other and then went home. This was equally and surprising and far sadder to observe. However, I can’t really stress how different the attitude of students are here in some respects. As I have made clear I really enjoyed all the students I had and they are clearly not bad or purposely disruptive individuals but the relationship is definitely different. Now when my professor friend ever has to leave his classroom he says I don’t want to see anyone talking when I get back. I agree with him when he says that if you said this to a class students in the U.K or Ireland there would be a very good chance you would receive some form of an official complaint from at least one student in your class about treating them like children. This might sound extreme but it really is the case. Take another example, in my final year of undergraduate, there were mandatory evaluations for the whole course. The department let it be known that if you did not complete the evaluation they would first contact you asking you why by email multiple times, then telephone and if still no answer they would ring your house telephone number (so basically your parents) which they also had on their record. This created nothing short of a riot amongst students on my course with pledges to boycott the evaluation as a whole, if this policy wasn’t dropped. The department soon backed down from its position. In the U.K Parents and University only ever mix once and that is on graduation day and in my opinion, this is quite a good thing.
There are many possible theories why students here have such a different motivational tendencies towards university than the U.K. An obvious argument would be that in the U.K 90% of students move to a different city for University and this new independence away from home causes them to ‘grow up’ and it becomes ‘cool’ to try act in more adult fashion. This is plausible but starts to break down when we look at Ireland or other continental countries where the majority of students do not move away from home for university. From my experience in Ireland this is definitely the case 90% of students in Dublin live with their parents and yet university there is probably even more formal and ‘grown-up’ than the U.K. From talking to Erasmus students mainly from Northern Europe it seems to be the case that a more grown-up atmosphere is also present there as well, and they were quite surprised at what they saw in Spain. So the question is firstly do we want to move away from a student teacher high school dynamic to one of two adults with a formal but relaxed relationship that allows both to learn of each other in some ways in every class and is conducive to adult conversations about serious topics? Secondly is there anything we can do to go about fostering a more mature collegiate relationship between students and professors at CEU? The second question is undoubtedly difficult as any questions about widespread behaviour change usually is, it is also clear that the motivational attitudes of CEU students is not unique but seen in many universities here. The only last insight I can give from my time at a university in the U.K was that there is an element of O.K. 1st year I will take easy, have some fun, make some friends etc. But the second 2nd year starts that finishes to a large extent, then its time to really begin hitting the books and this increases marginally every year. It common to hear someone saying ‘you are not in first year anymore!’ to certain students and I think this can help to some extent in changing the mindset of an 18-year-old from a teenager into some form of a grownup.
5 Changes in university
Staying on the topic of growing up it is clear that there are plentiful opportunities for students who want to get involved in the real world due to the wide range of extra-curricular activities outside of class. I really am impressed with just how many activities, conferences, outside speakers, employability events go on throughout the semester. With the faculty being a hive of activity on most days of the week. I follow the CEU San Pablo Instagram account and it constantly is talking about all the exciting stuff happening over the following days and weeks. The Makeni programme which I am lucky enough to be involved with this summer is something I have never seen offered to students by an English University. In this respect for a University that is relatively small by student numbers, CEU definitely punches above its weight. I think this is just one of the many reasons why the second I say I work at CEU people’s faces tend to really light up. It is obvious that the CEU brand is strong and this also seems to be the case in different areas of Spain besides Madrid.
This is good as from an outsider’s perspective it seems the market for high-quality private university education in the Madrid area is heating up. You would expect the demand to be increasing as Spain economy continues to outpace almost all others in Europe but at the same time it seems that supply might also be increasing dramatically. There are a lot of private universities in Madrid and Spain for that matter, I know I have an excel sheet with all of them on, if you want me to send it to you I can. I have also never seen more advertising for Universities in my whole life, every bus seems to have an ad for a different university on it, Facebook has been constantly advertising two private universities on my feed for the last 3 months. The other ‘threat’ is foreign competition. I know quite a few of my students this year will be leaving CEU for a British Universities in September. According to them, this is a decision that is increasingly becoming popular amongst Spanish students. Is this due to a consistently weak pound against the euro? I don’t think so. I think this is more linked to some of the points I have discussed earlier on in this blog. 1. A lot of them have friends in England/Ireland from English summer camps they have done in the past, as such they here about their friends University experiences and as such know that the learning environment is very different over there. If this more grown-up environment is what they want then it may make sense to go abroad. 2. Links back to my point about the generational confidence gap that I believe exists in Spain. If you believe at 18/19 that your future is in finance, then maybe a University in London is going to help you achieve that goal. If you want to work at Facebook or Google then maybe a business degree in Trinity College Dublin which is only a 15-minute walk from both would suit you more. If the youth of Spain continue to feel that at least some of their career will be abroad then competition from British, Irish and American universities will only increase. At the same time from talking to professors at my undergraduate university, it is believed that a situation known as ‘peak China’ has been reached. This means for multiple reasons they are expecting to see less and less Chinese students at British Universities in future years. As this revenue stream dries up they will be increasingly looking to other Asian countries and also a more concentrated effort towards Continental Europe is taken. If you look at the case of Ireland demand from foreign students especially post Brexit vote already outstrips supply so much they are not even advertising abroad.
A tighter university graduate market combined with increased university fees has led to a fundamentally different approach and mentality to university education amongst British students compared to 8-10 years ago. In the past, you went to University to study further something you had already realised you had some interest in and also to have a lot of fun, get your degree and the to some extent see where the world took you. After first possibly doing a year of travelling in Asia and/or South America. The death of this mentality can be placed sometime between The Royal Bank of Scotland getting bailed out and David Cameron saying the pre/post Uni gap year was dead and now it was time for a pre/post work experience year. This is the situation universities in Britain now find themselves, no longer having the main mission as a centre to expand knowledge of young minds but now to ensure that the +£30k cost of University is a profitable investment. This had led universities to increasingly talk about the move academic prestige of their staff and research to where and what high flying graduate schemes previous graduates have ended up on after their degrees. Sometimes there is more talk about the facilities and credential of staff at the careers department then the subject faculty itself. Now, this is unquestionably worrying and sad but it seems to be a trend increasingly seen around the world especially at Universities in major cities. The advertising campaign Nebrija University I imagine spent a lot of money on as it was all over Moncloa station was focused on one thing employability! In Britain now one of the first lectures you will have especially in a business and economics department will be about the importance of trying to get a1st year summer internship at one of the big 4. This has been a dramatic transformation in British universities over a very short period of time where those doing some form of internships or placement year went from being a small minority to a majority of students. This has played into the hands of some universities noticeably London Universities due to the close proximity to the right industries at the expense of the traditional elites institutions that are in more remote areas such as Oxbridge, Durham, Exeter etc. Also, first movers have done very well out of this, they were universities that for historical reasons had strong links to industry. For example, Warwick and Lancaster, who had a strong focus on internships for a long time before 2009 have seen the desirability and applications to especially their business courses increase dramatically. Warwick, in particular, has leveraged its long-held connections with other hot job locations in order to really try to offer something its rivals couldn’t. A similar thing is occurring from what I have seen in Australia. What does this mean? It means that relatively new universities that for historical reasons have been more tied to the industry are finding it possible to usurp and overtake the long-established and renowned competition. This is increasing their revenues and as such ability to invest and their positions in domestic and international league tables are rising. If you managed to get Michael Porter, Alan Greenspan or Paul Krugmann to do a lecture that would definitely look great. However, if Musk, Zuckerberg or Bezos popped in for a quick speech recorded on Instagram with a photo op after, well then you’re going to have to double your new admissions staff next year. Is the trend towards employability over established reputation going to continue increasing? In my opinion, due to overarching economic and social trends, this will continue to be the case. It won’t be long now before an economics undergraduate from a London University (Probably LSE) will be the first to get a starting salary of £100k at some investment bank whilst an economics undergraduate from an unspecified university in the North of England will be lucky to get something paying a quarter of that. This won’t be confined to Economics or Business, you will see even more wage polarisation amongst other degrees especially those in the humanities. This polarisation will increasingly push students towards the universities where they feel they can come out the other end with a high paid at a top company.
I hope it didn’t get too preachy towards the end there but this is something I do think about a lot. I have been lucky enough to live through a time of rapid change in the university sector and also see how the university sector varies but is also similar in different countries around the world. This is happening at pace in Colombia, with relatively new private universities with strong links to The States and Industry growing phenomenally whilst universities that have over 200 years of history having a question mark over whether they will still exist in a decade’s time. I believe though that CEU is well placed to combat these changes and clearly will continue to be a very attractive option to both locals and foreign students for the foreseeable future. Anyway, again apologies in this ending up as a bit of fiery newspaper editorial but much like my American friends here I have something called the 5-minute rule. For them it is the average time before the person you are talking to mentions DT while for me it is usually more to do with Brexit or their experiences living, studying, working in London, England or Ireland compared to Spain. This short blog that turned into an extended read are just my opinions, but I hope they may have resolved some questions you may have had. If you have any opinions or comments agreeing or disagreeing with anything, I have said above I would really love to hear. See you around!
Is Professor at the Department of Economics