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Catalonia is a top Erasmus destination

Thousands of Erasmus students choose Catalonia each year as their exchange destination. The students, from across Europe, started either their work or study placements, last week. The CNA interviewed two of the new arrivals about their reasons for this choice and what they hope to gain from their experiences.


21 September 2011 11:17 PM


Caitlin Smith

Barcelona (ACN).- Last week an exciting new experience for thousands of Erasmus students coming to Catalonia began. As the university year starts, Catalan students will be joined by their European peers, embarking on Europe's largest foreign exchange programme, the Erasmus programme. Since its creation more than 20 years ago, 2.3 million students have taken up "the opportunity to go abroad and study at a higher education institution or train in a company" according to the European Commission, which funds the programme. "I'm so nervous but in a good way!" Victoria Smith, one of the students interviewed by CNA said, as she started her Erasmus work placement at a hotel in Barcelona. Not all the Erasmus participants come to Catalonia to work, the majority choosing to attend university. The most popular university in Catalonia among exchange students is the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), ranked in 7th position out of the top 100 universities participating in the programme, for the number of students it hosts.

With the start of the new university semester, thousands of Erasmus programme participants have been arriving in Catalonia to start a work or study placements. Four Catalan universities currently rank within the top 100 Erasmus student destinations, with the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), ranked in 7th position. This is out 2,199 participating higher education institutions from 31 countries.

The programme is funded by the European Commission, although the emphasis is on individual universities to make connection with other higher education institutions across Europe. Since its creation in 1987, over 2.3 students have travelled to another European destination with Erasmus, fulfilling the ambition of greater student mobility and cooperation.

Coming to Catalonia

Victoria Smith, a language student from Wales in the United Kingdom and Ester Ósk Gestsdóttir Waage, a journalism student from Reykjavík in Iceland are just two of the new arrivals to Barcelona. Victoria comes for a work placement and Ester to expand her studies at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), the most popular university in Catalonia for Erasmus students. Both fit the typical profile of an Erasmus participant, being in their early twenties, female and students of social sciences and the arts.

This is not to say that the Erasmus community arriving in Catalonia will not bring diversity. "My two friends are studying anthropology and politics and social science, each and everyone that I have met is studying something different" said Ester. "There are loads of different nationalities too, lots of Germans but I have also seen lots of ethnically Asian people" she commented, "a total mix."

Erasmus grant

All Erasmus participants will be given a small amount of financial aid. From a 1.3 billion euro budget for the entire European Union and between 2007 and 2013, students typically receive a grant around 250 euros per month. Grants are controlled by the student's home country depending on their initial budget and the number of applicants they accept to the scheme, which is ultimately funded by the European Commission.

In total around 4% of European students receive an Erasmus grant at some point during their higher education. It should be noted however that the number of ´'zero-EU' students, as the European Commission calls them, who are part of the Erasmus programme without receiving a grant, has increased by more than 50% in recent years, showing the popularity of studying or working abroad even without financial help.

Erasmus job placement

Whilst Ester will study, Victoria has elected to do a company placement and secured a contract with the Banys Orientals Hotel, in Barcelona, as a receptionist. "It's just like looking for a job" she explained "I searched a lot of placements and explained my situation - that I was looking for work experience rather than a paid job, and I found this hotel and it was great." After securing the agreement of the hotel, she then successfully sought the acceptance of her home university. It is ultimately the decision of the university if a work placement can count towards academic credits.  

Practical work experience has only been included under the Erasmus scheme recently, having previously been organised, in the large part, by a separate European Commission initiative, the 'Leonardo' programme. They have proved to be popular with a 17% annual increase between the 08/09 and 09/10 academic year, perhaps a sign of the willingness of students to gain vocational knowledge in a poor economic climate.

According to the official report "spending time in a company abroad helps students to adapt to the requirements of the labour market and develop specific skills". Victoria agrees, "It\u2019s a really good opportunity because you get to do work experience and not just studying so I get to learn languages and as well I have something to put on my C.V", she said.

Spain is the top Erasmus destination

Whilst France sent the most students abroad for company placements, the top destination was Spain. This is consistent with study placements, where Spain consistently places at the top of the Erasmus rankings as the state that receives the most amounts of students. Furthermore, Spain is also the country that sends the largest number of students abroad. The latest figures show that in the 09/10 academic year Spain received 35, 386 students. Impressively, seven of the top 10 universities chosen by Erasmus students are within the state.

Both Victoria and Ester put this down to the desire by students to learn Spanish. "I had always been interested in learning more Spanish" Ester said, while Victoria added, "I came here because it's a great opportunity for me to practice my Spanish."

Catalan language and Erasmus students

Neither of the two considered the linguistic situation of Catalonia (which enjoys two official languages, Catalan and Spanish) as an obstacle to this goal. "It didn\u2019t discourage me at all" said Ester, "It's their original language that they want to hold on to and I think that\u2019s pretty cool."

However, Ester did admit that her focus was solely on Spanish, "We have the option to learn Catalan but I don\u2019t want to. I came here to study Spanish not Catalan", she said. Victoria, who had taken some classes in Catalan, was more open to the possibility of developing her skills, although she was more concerned to learn Spanish. "I went to see a flat but I didn\u2019t take it because everyone who lived there spoke Catalan and I want to live with Spanish people to improve my speaking" she reasoned.

Within the Erasmus programme at most Catalan universities, students must work within the language requirements of their chosen destination. Although most major universities offer around half of their courses in Spanish and the other half in Catalan, besides the few offered in English, it can not be guaranteed that all courses will be offered in both languages for practical reasons. Therefore, some subjects, particularly the less popular ones, are only offered either in Spanish, or in Catalan.

The International Office at UAB does note that "the language of instruction is a constant query for exchange students before coming to UAB." However, the UAB does emphasise that basic Catalan courses are offered free of charge to students. Moreover, from the 10/11 academic year Catalan was included on the list of Erasmus Intensive Language Courses (EILC) on offer.

EILCs allow students to benefit from language tuition, in their host country, prior to the start of their exchange. Students receive the tuition for free and receive a small amount of financial help for their living expenses. Over 5,000 Erasmus students got the opportunity to take an EILC during the last academic year.

Catalonia is one of the top Erasmus destinations

Despite such queries, Catalonia remains one of the most fashionable choices for an Erasmus exchange. The Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) receives the largest number of Erasmus students within Catalonia. This year, according to their International Office, 1095 students have already enrolled, although this figure will increase when applications reopen in November for the spring term.

Ester believes that its popularity is partially based on its good reputation and partially due to its location, "We heard that it was supposed to be a very respected school" she said, "the website looked good and I wanted to live here." This is the same attitude as the International Office, who state the reputation of the University, its facilities and its location as its main selling points.  

Along with UAB three other Catalan institutions, the Universitat de Barcelona (ranked 12th), the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (27th) and the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (90th) also place within the top 100 exchange universities according to the European Commission.

Barcelona\u2019s attraction

From the rankings, it is clear that Barcelona city in particular attracts foreign students. "I have always wanted to live in Barcelona" Victoria said, "people are always going on holiday here and I thought that if people come here for a holiday it would be great to live here."

Regarding the social life, an essential ingredient to any Erasmus exchange, Ester who arrived in the city two weeks ago was certain. "I'm outdoing myself completely and I thought that would be impossible after my freshman year!" she said "You always find something for the mood you are in."

Essentially, the experiences of Ester and Victoria are just small pieces of a multi-national picture. All of the new arrivals to Catalonia are taking a risk by re-locating to a new place in the hope of gaining greater practical and academic skills. However, the Erasmus experience is designed to give students so much more than this.

Looking for the \u201CErasmus experience\u201D

Ester, like many other students in her situation, was motivated to undertake an exchange simply to experience life abroad. "I have been here for two weeks and a lot of things have changed for me about my way of viewing life and about communicating with people in particular" she reflected. "I think that\u2019s something that everyone should do- live abroad for X amount of time just to get a different perspective on life."

Victoria is also optimistic that moving to a new home will broaden her horizons. "I want to learn lots obviously, but I also just want to travel and see new places" she said "Hopefully when my work placement is up, I wont want to leave."

As the new Erasmus students embark on their first weeks it is impossible to say for certain what they will encounter during their time in Catalonia. What they can be certain of however, is that when they return home, they will have developed new skills, met new people, and discovered all manner of new things that they could not have otherwise done without Erasmus. It is this simple fact, that Erasmus opens new doors of opportunity, that keeps students and authorities working together to ensure that European exchanges continue.


  • Victoria working at the Banys Orientals front desk (by C. Smith)

  • Ester comes to expand her studies at the UAB (by C. Smith)

  • Victoria working at the Banys Orientals front desk (by C. Smith)
  • Ester comes to expand her studies at the UAB (by C. Smith)