The History of Spanish Universities from their origins in the 12th century


In this article Telva Martel of the University of Malaga depicts the historical evolution of the Spanish universities through an analysis of the legal documents which have reshaped and give form to the current spanish higher education system. Furthermore, Telva Martel looks at the advantages and limitations of international rankings when evaluating universities performance.

According to the author Alberto Jiménez (1971:43), the term ‘university’ is not historically related to ‘universe’ or the ‘universality’ of science, but rather was used simply to refer to all members of a group, whether of masons, carpenters or students. Over time, however, it came to refer solely to teachers’ and students’ guilds or universitas magistrorum discipulorumque.
In the 12th century, students travelled from country to country in search of knowledge to satisfy their intellectual curiosity and gain access to the liberal professions. To this end, they gathered in cities offering cheap food and board and paid to take classes from licensed professors. Thus arose the permanent educational institution known as ‘university’ or ‘general studies’.
It is worth noting that, because of the Roman-Gothic legal tradition, Spanish universities are of royal rather than pontifical origin. The first university was founded in Palencia in 1212 by Alfonso VIII of Castile. It was followed by the University of Salamanca, founded by Alfonso IX of León in 1215, the University of Valladolid, founded in 1260, and so on. The instruction and teaching bodies at these universities were regulated under the Magna Carta issued by Alfonso X in 1254. Over time, universities were founded in other cities throughout Spain, too, including Lleida, Huesca, Alcalá de Henares, Osuna, Saragossa and Barcelona, among others, but the royal funding eventually dried up, and they came to be dominated by the Catholic Church. Some authors, such as Francisco Aguilar or the Pesets, contend that the so-called colegios mayores, strict student residence halls operated by the Church, proved to be the downfall of the Spanish university. There were five such colegios, which together formed a closed and exclusive system that came to control most of the country’s university chairs, such as those at the University of Salamanca: Santa Cruz in Valladolid (founded in 1480), Oviedo, Fonseca and Cuenca in Salamanca, and San Idelfonso in Alcalá (founded in 1500). Although the colegios had originally been created for poor students on scholarships, most of the slots were awarded to students from the upper ranks of the clergy and the nobility. In contrast to the colegiales, who did not receive financial aid, scholarship students were known as manteístas, in reference to the manteo or traditional cloak that students wore. It was not until 1766, under Carlos III, that the colegios were abolished and the first university reforms were undertaken, including the assignment of ministers as directors of the universities.
The education system was centralised under Antonio Gil de Zárate’s Department of Public Instruction through the 1857 Public Instruction Law (also known as the Moyano Law). Under the new system, instruction was given in six faculties—the rest were eliminated—and at ten universities, namely, those of Madrid, Salamanca, Valladolid, Barcelona, Santiago, Saragossa, Granada, Seville, Oviedo and Valencia. Education became ‘another area of government’ (Del Valle López, 1998:33); all new plans, examinations, rector appointments, teaching methods, etc., were exclusively determined by government regulation. This model lasted until 1970, with brief hiatuses, such as the six-year period following the Revolution of 1868, which called for academic freedom, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. As a result of that period, these freedoms, along with scientific freedom, were included in the Constitution. The period also saw the founding of the Institución Libre de Enseñanza, or Free Institution of Education, an experimental private university devoted to academic and scientific freedom.
In 1970, the Franco regime passed the General Education Act, which restored universities’ autonomy, while also democratising them and opening them to the masses.
Under Franco, the number of students enrolled at university rose from a total of 58,708 in the 1940-41 academic year to 150,733 in the 1950-51 academic year and to 178,062 in the 1960-61 academic year (Velasco Murviedo, 1998:43-47).
When Franco died, he was succeeded by King Juan Carlos. Today, the education system is governed by ‘the 1978 Spanish Constitution and four laws implementing constitutional principles and rights: Organic Law 11/1983, of 25 August, on University Reform; Organic Law 8/1985, of 3 July, regulating the Right to Education, which guarantees the universal right to education; Organic Law 1/1990, of 3 October, on the General Regulation of the Education System, which does not affect the university system; and Organic Law 9/1995, of 20 November, on the Participation, Evaluation and Governance of Schools’ (El sistema…, 2000:45).
Organic Law 6/2001, of 21 December, on Universities (LOU from the Spanish) and the 2007 amendment thereof (Organic Law 4/2007, of 12 April) establish that the function of universities is to serve society through:
  • the creation, development, transmission and criticism of science, technology and culture;
  • the provision of training for the exercise of professional activities requiring the application of scientific knowledge and methods and for the creation of art;
  • the development of science and technology, as well as the dissemination, assessment and transfer of knowledge to promote culture, quality of life and economic development;
  • and the dissemination of knowledge and culture through university extension and lifelong learning.
By the 2008-09 academic year, Spain had 77 universities, 50 public and 27 private. That year, public universities offered 260,113 places on first-and second-cycle degree programmes, distributed among 2,606 courses. The total number of students enrolled in such programmes the previous academic year stood at 1,389,394, and teaching and research staff totalled 102,300 (in 2006-07), including 93,372 employees at public universities and 8,928 at private or Catholic ones. Of the total number of teaching and research staff at public universities, 51,125 are civil servants and 42,247 are under contract.
As a result of the autonomy afforded to universities under the 1983 Law on University Reform (LRU from the Spanish) and of the fact that 80% of this autonomy is publicly funded, José Barea Tejeiro (2003:92-93) has noted that reports are drawn up to assess teaching and research quality and disseminate the results, thereby allowing the citizenry to evaluate whether or not the universities have met its expectations. This is particularly important given that ‘the ratio of university students is 42.4 per 1,000 inhabitants and spending comes to $8,943 PPP per student’ (Consejo..., 2007:11). To this end, Royal Decree 1947/1995 of 1 December (Spanish Official Gazette of 9 December 1995) sets out a National Plan for University Quality Assessment (PNECU from the Spanish), whereby ‘an effective and efficient use of resources and a high level of quality will ensure the future competitiveness of many universities and even their very survival’ (López Toro, 2000:39). Of the total number of universities, 49 use the PNECU guidelines as a framework for institutional assessment. According to López Toro, ‘the number of qualifications assessed by institutions is still low compared to the total number of qualifications offered by each one. On average, participating universities had assessed 24% of the qualifications they offer by the end of the PNECU’s second call for submissions. Moreover, this figure is inflated, as two outlier universities had assessed all their qualifications, significantly increasing the average. The real average might thus be closer to between 15 and 20%’ (López Toro, 2000:446). Each university will differentiate itself and compete based on its quality, its brand, in a process that will elevate some above others, as envisaged in the ‘University 2015’ strategy. To this end, the International Campus of Excellence programme aims to ensure that university campuses act as key engines for attracting talent and as major drivers of international activity and economic value generation through the transfer of knowledge and technology. To achieve this, the THES-QS indicators are being used to assess Spanish higher education (Estrategia…, n.d.). The first Spanish university to appear in the 2007 ranking was the University of Barcelona, which ranked 194, followed by the Autonomous University of Barcelona (258), the Autonomous University of Madrid (306), the University of Navarre (319), Pompeu Fabra University (339) and, lastly, the University of Valencia (393). These were the top Spanish universities according to that methodology. In the 2008 Academic Ranking of World Universities, the first Spanish university also appears in the 152-200 range (University of Barcelona). It is followed by the Complutense University of Madrid and the Autonomous University of Madrid (both in the 201-302 range) and the Autonomous University of Barcelona and the University of Valencia (in the 303-401 range).
The following Spanish universities were designated International Campuses of Excellence in 2009 and awarded corresponding grants of €150 million (Resulta…, 2009):
  • Barcelona Knowledge Campus (University of Barcelona and Technical University of Catalonia).
  • University City (Moncloa Campus): Campus of Excellence of the Region of Madrid (Complutense University of Madrid and Technical University of Madrid).
  • Carlos III Campus (Carlos III University of Madrid).
  • UAB-CEI: Promoting knowledge, encouraging innovation (Autonomous University of Barcelona).
  • UAM-CSIC International Campus of Excellence (Autonomous University of Madrid).
The following campuses were awarded the distinction ‘International Campus of Excellence 2009’ (CEI 2009) at the regional level:
  • Agri-Food Campus (University of Cordoba).
  • Cantabria International Campus (University of Cantabria).
  • Ad Futurum (University of Oviedo).
Moreover, the following university projects have received quality mentions under the International Campus of Excellence Programme, according to its director general for International Relations (Propuesta…, 2009):
  • University of Salamanca: CENTINELA project on innovation in Spanish and its technology, awarded a €120,000 grant.
  • University of Malaga: Project on applied technologies in development and territorial sustainability, awarded a €110,000 grant.
  • University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria: Atlantic Campus project, awarded a €110,000 grant.
  • University of Murcia: Coriolis project, awarded a €100,000 grant.
  • University of Jaén: Project on cultural and natural heritage, awarded a grant of €80,000.
  • University of La Laguna: European University of the Atlantic project, awarded a grant of €65,000.
  • Technical University of Cartagena: awarded a grant of €65,000.
  • University of Alcalá de Henares: awarded a grant of €65,000.
  • University of the Basque Country: City, Art and Science project.
  • University of Saragossa: International Multicampus.
  • Public University of Navarre.
  • University of Cadiz: CEIMAR project, awarded a grant of €45,000.
The goal is thus for the universities of the future to offer a student-centred education that emphasises student and lecturer mobility, continuing education and ongoing quality improvements through external assessment, while also strengthening their international appeal. This will enable the emergence or consolidation of prestigious, name-brand universities that are highly competitive amongst themselves and a situation in which public funding may be affected by the balance universities achieve between institutional autonomy and social responsibility, as advocated by Saturnino de la Plaza. It will also create a situation in which companies will know that it matters where a student has earned his or her degree. The Excellence and Quality programmes thus aim to modernise universities, turning them into engines for attracting talent and drivers of international activity and economic value generation through knowledge transfer based on high-quality teaching and scientific excellence in their international approach and their ability to transform knowledge into innovation.
However, it is important to distinguish between a university’s quality and its position in a ranking: these are two separate concepts that should not be confused. To this end, one must determine which parameters are used to draw up the ranking, whether location, financial aid, teaching quality, research quality or anything else, in order to contextualise exactly what is being assessed. Rankings should not be used to measure a university’s quality, as quality is not a one-dimensional concept, but rather a multidimensional one, encompassing teaching quality, research quality, quality as a combination of activities, institutional mission and a range of other factors that are quite difficult to aggregate into a single index able to indicate a university’s overall position in the sector. As noted above, Toro López has observed that universities’ own qualifications are still being assessed, and both internal and external offices are performing these assessments. What exactly these rankings are measuring must be specified, and, of course, specialised agencies in the field must collaborate on the effort, in accordance with the PNECU. As Carmen Pérez-Esparrells and José María Gómez-Sancho have argued, ‘In this sense, a good ranking should establish the most precise definition possible of what is understood by academic quality and the decisive factors that make a university good (...). In practice, the comparison tends to be biased or exclusively focused on research activity, mainly due to the fact that this is the only activity for which comparable data are available at the international level, such as those available through the ISI Web of Knowledge or Scopus databases’ (Pérez-Esparrells and Gómez-Sancho, 2010:3). By way of example, the Academic Ranking of World Universities looks at the number of Nobel Prizes and other distinctions awarded to a university’s alumni and staff, the number of articles published in key scientific journals (for the most part, in English-speaking countries), the number of times that a university’s researchers are cited in academically prestigious journals, the number of students and the academic performance of each faculty.
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About the author

Telva Martel is currently studying her phd on new technologies in communications at the University of Malaga. Additionally, she is representative of a training consultant company who teaches courses subsidized by the Social Security. She has also been representative of the Editorial Akal and the Editorial Grupo SM. Furthermore, Telva holds a B.A. In audiovisual communication.

For further information about this article contact the author at:


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