There are 50 public universities in Spain. The majority of Spanish students end up attending the closest school to their family home. A particular degree not being taught nearby, or not getting in (mostly due to the limited number of seats) are the main exceptions for traveling or attending a private university. The norm for middle-class families is to send kids to the closest public school. Private universities don’t tend to be the main option unless you obtain a scholarship or are wealthy. Unlike other countries, there is no culture of studying abroad, leaving the family home, or researching for the best school.
I am originally from a city called Seville, in the south of Spain. The University of Seville, which was founded in 1505, is the third biggest one in the nation in terms of the number of students. Both my parents and grandparents studied there. I was fortunate enough that there was a Computer Science degree in my hometown university which was not oversubscribed, or so I thought (more on this later). It made sense that I would study there. Additionally, pretty much all my high school friends stayed in my hometown too.
My 5-year Computer Science degree (which is now equivalent to a European master’s degree) cost me less than $4000. Yes, that’s the tuition for the full five years. Let that sink in. Prorated, that’s about the monthly cost of a cell phone plan in the United States or 13 times cheaper than a year at Stanford. I now see how this incredibly ordinary right for most Spaniards has given me the privilege to take risks I could have never taken if I was in debt. These include taking a more interesting (but underpaid) job offer or starting up a company. I will never take this competitive advantage for granted. But of course, there was a time in which I was not seeing things that way.
Let me tell you, while I was studying and struggling to pass those pretentious exams, the $800/year tuition felt like a total rip-off. I felt only a handful of professors knew what they were talking about and were able to communicate properly1 (I am still in contact with them). But for the most part, my impression was that teaching was only a must-do activity for them, to be able to keep researching. My first couple of years were rough. Tests never matched what was taught in class. Coding tests were done on paper, not using computers. If only I was taught by Peter Norvig or John Hennessy things would be so much different. Yes, I could even become a world-class engineer. That is what used to tell myself back then.
Did I mention that there were a lot of empty seats? Unlike popular degrees like Architecture or Medicine, there was more offer than demand for Computer Science. This means that essentially anybody that graduated high school in my hometown, was able to enroll. No filter whatsoever. I bet you can imagine what this translates to. Most students would drop off sooner or later (I don’t blame them, I almost did more than once). The lack of ambition was depressing. When most people are failing exams, getting a 50/100 makes you feel like the smartest person in the world. How was I supposed to find co-founders for my ideas among these people?
How did my point of view change? The change of mind started when I got a scholarship to take a master’s degree at Cranfield University (England). I ended up paying $175 for tuition that normally costs over $10,000 (thanks, Erasmus). Being exposed to a different education system was quite eye-opening. Firstly, the quality of teaching was generally higher and therefore it was easier to pass the exams. It was trickier to get really good grades though. But in general, nobody would fail. Students were filtered before acceptance, which is also a contributing factor. But the key for me was realizing that the students from the University of Seville were doing quite well at Cranfield. Our level was not only competitive with other international students, it was higher. At that point, in my mind, the subsidized tuition fee in Spain started to look quite cheap in comparison.
But it was not until I landed in San Francisco when I fully realized the competitive advantage. This was Silicon Valley, what I always thought was the number one league in the world. And graduates from Spanish public universities were able to get the job done. Student debt (a concept that had never been part of my vocabulary) was not a problem for me. That is the definition of privilege.
Ultimately, I am a little bit torn. Would I have enjoyed my student years more had I studied at a top University? Of course, I am sure I would have had a blast! Would I have become a better professional? Probably not. The fact that there was a mismatch between the level of the exams and the teaching ended up being a blessing in disguise. It helped me develop strong work ethics, discipline, and problem-solving skills. I was never able to attend a lecture from Norvig or Hennessy, but I studied their books. And eventually, I met really good friends and smart people that studied at my school and are world-class professionals. Some of them are leading engineering teams, developing products at Silicon Valley companies, and some I managed to fool and eventually recruit. Funny thing though, most of them I didn’t meet in class but through other means, like (unbelievably) surfing.
I would like to finish this post by mentioning that nowadays, maybe you don’t need to go to university to become a professional software developer. There are many alternatives, and even top universities are releasing their courses for free. But unfortunately, many countries (like the US) still require a formal bachelor’s degree for most of their working visas. I would have never been able to come to one of the most expensive cities in the world, if I had student debt, or if I didn’t have a degree. And for that, I will be forever grateful to the Spanish public education system.
1It’s also true that the first couple of years I was a total noob. Once I learned who were the good professors and started attending their lectures, my experience in class changed drastically.
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