Almost half of Spanish students drop out before completing their first three years of study. For those students who make it to their final year, the success rate improves with only a 25-30 per cent drop-out rate.
This is just one of the findings in the annual report of the universities' national quality evaluation plan just published. Other problems include a lack of library and computing facilities, low student involvement in academic life and excessive student workloads. More positively, the report noted a wide range of qualifications on offer and an increase in practical training, work placements and participation in international exchange.
The study, carried out by the Universities Council, examined 250 degrees provided by 51 mainly state universities during 1998-99. The high drop-out rate has set alarm bells ringing in Spain. Higher education is mainly paid for by the state, with student fees typically contributing about 20 per cent of the cost.
Report coordinator Eduardo Coba believes many factors contribute, including poor secondary school preparation. Some people entering university from vocational training can have problems getting to grips with the theoretical side of their degree. Others are disorientated by the change from the structured school environment to the more autonomous university world.
First-year students are most likely to throw in the towel. "Eighty per cent of those who make it to the second year will get their final degree," says Mr Coba.
The report recommends that departments set up mechanisms to deal with high drop-out rates on specific courses. It also points to "the need to increase the effectiveness and use of tutorials throughout degrees, with special emphasis on guidance during the first year and entry to the job market".
The University of Barcelona, whose tutoring scheme recently won a UC best practice prize, has found that closer guidance from lecturers helps reduce drop-out rates on science, nursing and teacher training degrees.
Meritxell Chaves, university quality director, believes the more complex structure of courses, following curricula reform in the 1990s, makes students more in need of guidance. Spanish universities have become more concerned with quality over the past five years. The need to shape up to standards overseas and the emergence of competition between universities at home have turned up the pressure.
A more diverse student body, the impact of new technology on teaching and the need to move into the continuing education market are other factors pushing universities to rethink.
"Study at university will be very different in ten years when we have real European integration," Mr Coba said.