What is the international position of Spanish universities in 51?

Contact: Melina Díaz Christiansen, Fundación CYD, fundacioncyd@fundacioncyd.org

Nov 12, 2021 12:20 (CEST)

What is the international position of Spanish universities in 51?
  • The master’s graduation rates for Spanish universities are considerably higher than those of European and world The opposite is the case regarding bachelor graduation rates.
  • Regarding the research results of Spanish universities, there is much scope for improvement, particularly in citation rate, external research income and top cited publications.
  • As for knowledge transfer, Spanish universities are far from world and European levels in terms of co-publications with industrial partners, income from private sources and the creation of spin-offs, but better concerning industry co-patents and income from continuous professional development.
  • Spanish universities have ample room for improvement regarding internationalisation; their results concerning the number of bachelor’s and master’s degrees taught in foreign languages as well as international academic staff are low, although they are better in international joint publications and student mobility.
  • Spanish universities stand out for their contribution to regional development, especially through student internships in the region and income from regional sources.


International rankings have become increasingly important since they are instruments that enable university models to be analysed and compared. At the same time, they are useful tools for measuring the strengths and weaknesses of university systems and comparing them with others while also offering the opportunity to compare universities at an institutional level and according to different fields of knowledge. In this respect, Fundación CYD has analysed the role of Spanish universities within the international university system by means of 51’s most recent data.

In existence since 2014, 51 (promoted by the European Commission, the Bertelsmann Foundation and the Banco Santander) is a multi-dimensional ranking system that measures the performance of universities worldwide, combining rankings according to fields of knowledge with a ranking of higher education institutions. In 2021, it presented its eighth set of results with data on some 2,000 universities in 97 countries, 36.5% of which are in Europe. Among these, there are 76 Spanish higher education institutions, which means that almost all Spanish universities are included.

51 presents its results according to levels of performance, ranging from ‘very good’ to ‘weak’; there are five categories, which depend on the distance between the score for the indicator for a specific institution and the average of all the institutions for which data are available. In turn, it classifies the indicators in five areas: teaching and learning, research, knowledge transfer, international orientation and regional engagement.


1. Institutional performance in teaching and learning

The Fundación CYD has compared the performance of universities around the world, in Europe and in Spain in each of these five areas. With respect to teaching and learning, it has selected two indicators: the bachelor graduation rate and the master’s graduation rate.

Regarding the bachelor graduation rate, Spanish universities are largely in the two lowest performance groups (groups III and IV), with only 6.76% in the two highest performance groups. World universities obtain the best results, with a score of 49.9% in groups I and II, while 36.36% of European universities fall into those two categories.

The master’s graduation rate refers to the proportion of students registered in the master’s degree that successfully complete their programme of studies. In contrast to bachelor’s degrees, in the case of master’s degrees there are more Spanish universities in the highest performance groups (groups I and II) with a score of 66.67%, above the results for European universities (51.57%) and world universities (50.06%).

In this category, IE Universidad is the only one with an indicator in group I (bachelor graduation rate) and the other one in group III (masters graduation rate). In the case of the Universitat Ramon Llull and the Universidad San Jorge both indicators are in group II.

2. The research dimension of Spanish universities

In order to analyse the aspect of research, the Fundación CYD selected six indicators: the citation rate, external research income, top cited publications, interdisciplinary publications, open access publications and post-doc positions.

The citation rate is the average number of citations for a university’s publications, standardised by area of knowledge and year of publication. Only 24.66% of Spanish universities are in groups I and II, as opposed to 51.79% of world universities and 51.22% of European ones.

The external research income indicator measures the number of external resources disbursed for R+D+i with regard to the teaching and research staff of the university. Among Spanish universities, only 32.88% can be classified in these groups, whereas for world universities the figure is 74.99% and for European ones it is 45.99%.

The top cited publications indicator refers to the proportion of a university’s publications that, compared with other publications in the same field of knowledge and dating from the same year, belongs to the top 10% of the most frequently cited. Only 23.29% of Spanish universities are in groups I and II as regards their performance, and the majority are in group III (58.9%). By contrast, world and European universities obtain better results: 52.17% and 50.52% respectively can be found in the highest performance groups.

As regards the interdisciplinary publications indicator, which refers to the degree to which publications include references to publications in other academic fields, Spanish universities achieve a presence of 52.05% in groups I and II, somewhat above the result for world universities (48.98%) and approaching that of European universities (52.96%).

Within this dimension as a whole, Spanish universities stand out most as regards open access publications (publications in completely open access journals), with a score of 91.78% in groups I and II, as opposed to 49.46% for world universities and 64.11% for European.

As for post-doc positions compared with academic and research staff, Spanish universities attained a presence of 87.14% in groups I and II, above world universities (86.14% of universities in the first two groups) and near the result achieved by European ones (90.19%).

Regarding the selection of indicators in this area, the university that was most often present in the highest performing groups was the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, with five indicators in group I and one indicator in group II.

3. The relationship between universities and knowledge transfer

Regarding the knowledge transfer area, six indicators have been analysed: co-publications with industrial partners, income from private sources, industry co-patents, spin-offs, publications cited in patents and income from continuous professional development.

The co-publications with industrial partners indicator measures the proportion of scientific publications carried out in collaboration with companies. 30.14% of Spanish universities are in performance groups I and II, which stands in stark contrast to the results for world universities (50.61%) and European ones (56.97%).

Income from private sources refers to the researching funding paid out by private sources to teaching and research staff. In the case of this indicator, 36.99% of Spanish universities can be placed in the highest performance groups compared with 46.71% of world universities and 41.91% of European ones.

The industry co-patents indicator measures the percentage of university patents awarded in which at least one of the applicants was a private company. This is the indicator in this area in which Spanish universities achieve their best results: 72.22% can be placed in groups I and II, a figure that is considerably better than those attained by world universities (44.63%) and European ones (53.71%).

In general, the percentage of spin-offs created by every 100 teaching and research staff members is the area in which there are the fewest universities in the highest performance groups, for both world and European universities, as well as Spanish ones. However, it is the first named group that achieves the best results, with 37.92% of universities in groups I and II, followed by European (33.85%) and Spanish with the lowest result of 10.14%.

As for publications cited in patents, an indicator that refers to the percentage of publications cited in the list of references of at least one international patent, the results are to a large extent homogeneous: 48.05% of world universities in groups I and II; 52.96% of European; and 41.10% of Spanish.

The last indicator analysed is income from continuous professional development; that is to say the income received by the university and by the centres in which it is responsible for carrying out continuous professional development activities, divided by the total income of the university and those centres. In this category, Spanish universities obtain better results than European and world ones: 56.94% can be classified in performance groups I and II, compared with 45.73% of world universities and 43.27% of European.

Regarding the indicators chosen for the knowledge transfer category, the universities that are most frequently placed in groups I and II are Universidad Carlos III, with five of the six indicators in group I and one in group III, which is followed by Universidad de Navarra and Universidad Mondragón; both of which have four indicators in group I and one indicator in group III.

4. The international orientation of universities

In order to measure international orientation, five indicators were analysed: foreign language bachelor programmes, foreign language master programmes, student mobility, international academic staff and international joint publications.

The indicator of foreign language bachelor programmes demonstrates the percentage of first-degree programmes in which at least 80% of the credits are taught in a foreign language. The results are not optimal for any of the three groups of universities examined, with Spanish universities having the greatest room for improvement since only 10.14% of them can be placed in the high-performance categories. In turn, 33.13% of world universities can be classified in these two groups, while 31.08% of European centres can be classified.

In the comparable category for master’s degrees, foreign language master programmes, the score for Spanish universities is lower since only 9.86% can be placed in groups I and II. World and European universities improve their results somewhat in comparison with bachelor programmes: 37.61% and 40.92% respectively can be classified in these two groups.

Student mobility refers to the percentage of students registered in an exchange programme with a university abroad, among which the participants in the Erasmus programme are included. This is the indicator with the best results for Spanish universities in this area, with 88.89% in groups I or II.  World universities score 54.78%, whereas European reach a figure of 74.20%.

As it pertains to international academic staff (the percentage of teaching and research staff holding a nationality other than Spanish), there are very few Spanish universities in the highest performance groups, only 18.06%, as opposed to world universities (46.41%) and European ones (44.74%).

As far as international joint publications are concerned, in other words the percentage of the university’s publications produced in collaboration with at least one author from a foreign institution, the presence of Spanish universities in groups I or II is higher than that of world universities (60.27% compared with 53.86%), although lower than that of European insitutions, which constitute the leading group with 75.09% of institutions in the highest-performing groups.

In this category, the most outstanding universities insofar as the indicators selected are concerned are Universidad Carlos III, which has three indicators in group I and one indicator in group II (there are no data available for the other indicator) and Universitat Ramon Llull with three indicators in group I and two in group II.

5. Universities and their contribution to regional development

Finally, the Fundación CYD selected four indicators to analyse their contribution to regional development: student internships in the region, income from regional sources; regional joint publications and regional joint publications with industrial partners.

The student internships in the region indicator measures the percentage of bachelor and master’s degree students who have undertaken a practicum in the region where the university is located in relation to the total number of students that have carried out a practical placement. To be precise, 71.01% of Spanish universities can be placed in groups I or II, while 49.27% of world universities and 45.07% of European can be so classified.

Income from regional sources indicates the percentage of external research income that comes from the region where the university is located. In the case of this indicator, Spanish universities also achieve better results, with a total of 83.33% in groups I or II, a figure that is double that recorded for world universities (38.5%) and European (40.48%).

Regional joint publications refers to the percentage of the university’s publications in which at least one of the joint authors is connected with an institution located within a radius of 50 km from the university. The results for the three groups are very similar: 49.45% of world universities, 54.88% of European institutions, and 54.79% of Spanish ones can be classified as landing into the high-performance groups.

The last indicator to be analysed was regional joint publications with industrial partners; this measures the relative number of scientific publications in which one of the authors is associated with a company based in the region. Of the Spanish universities, 40% can be placed in the higher performance groups, a figure that is surpassed both by that for world universities (46.53%) and that for European ones (43.9%).

In this area, the most prominent universities are the Universidad de La Laguna and the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya, with three of the four indicators selected classified in the highest-ranking category, group I.

Presence of spanish universities in 51

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