SPAIN: Study highlights progress on fair access

Spanish universities help to neutralise social inequality, according to the largest study of university students undertaken in Spain. The research shows that 51% of university students come from families whose parents never accessed higher education.

The report, Conditions of Life and the Participation of University Students in Spain, by Antonio Ariño, professor of sociology at the University of Valencia, was based on the responses of 18,000 Spanish students.

But despite this positive measure of progress, Ariño's survey also shows that inequality persists because children of parents with low levels of education remain underrepresented at university.

The publication comes just before the release of Social and Economic Conditions of Student Life in Europe 2008-11 based on the latest Eurostudent data of 6,000 students in 25 countries. The report is due to be presented in Brussels on 19 October.

Dr Dominic Orr, leader of the Eurostudent international coordination team, said: "What we can confidently say now is that it is positive that a large share of students are first generation, as their parents did not have the opportunity to study. Spain has made progress and is now in a 'transitional' situation for the better."

Due to differences in data collection employed by the Eurostudent and Ariño studies, it is not possible to establish whether other European countries fare better or worse than Spain on this particular question.

One specific difference is that an innovative new measure was introduced in the Eurostudent questionnaire, which asked students to self-assess the social standing of their parents. This measure sought to see if a subjective assessment could capture social background in a more comprehensive way.

Orr said the data from Spain for this round of Eurostudent was of a much higher quality, but was missing information on the background of students, such as the income disparity of their parents.

The previous edition of Eurostudent had a contradiction for Spain in that students with a blue collar background seemed to be clearly underrepresented in Spanish higher education, whereas people from a low education background were apparently quite well represented. However, these results will be thrown into doubt by the new report.

Ariño's study found that 51% of Spanish students live with their parents, compared to fewer than 10% in Denmark. This may be partly because students in other countries are given more financial support.

"This could also be because the market in other countries is more open to young people working," Ariño told El Pais, Spain's leading national daily newspaper.

Ariño's report also suggests that some differences can be explained because Spain is situated within the 'Catholic family group' that includes Italy, Portugal, Malta and Poland. Some argue that this is better for students, for example, because these families make fewer demands regarding their children leaving home.

However, "the importance of the family has as a counterweight the weak implantation of a universalist state," Ariño argues, referring to the greater reliance on families for support than state handouts in Spain.

For instance, Sicue programme grants for students to live away from home and study in a university that specialises in their subject were only introduced in 2000 and only 2,224 were made available this year.

It may be surprising for many in other countries to learn from Eurostudent that despite young Spaniards' stated desire to live on their own, 80% actually say they are very happy at home. The report suggests that many students decide to live at home, and work, not for basic necessities but to finance a hedonistic lifestyle that parents are reluctant to fund.

Another curious finding showed that although a surprising number of Spanish students (47%) do not believe that going to university will guarantee them a good income, and 28% do not think it will help them achieve a higher social position, the vast majority (74%) nonetheless believe that it helps them achieve a more interesting job.