University life in Andalucia
Many universities in the UK offer the chance to study abroad and experience life at a university of a different country. The Europe wide Erasmus University exchange programme is an excellent way of learning a new language. Many universities in Andalusia offer exchange programmes with British universities and more and more students are taking advantage of having a year abroad studying. Andalusia is a brilliant base for learning Spanish and for experiencing real Spanish culture.
However, universities in Spain differ immensely for what we are used to in the UK. The main differences you may encounter at Spanish universities are the same ones you find in the whole of Spain in general. An aparent lack of organisation and structure causes the most difficulties. It is highly advisable to research your chosen university thoroughly before you leave and know who you must get in contact with and what you have to do on arrival. You will probably find the University staff to be less helpful and approachable than they generally are in the UK. It is advisable to get as much information from your tutors in the UK and past students of the universities that you are going to study at. This will give you a better idea of exactly what to expect and what to look out for.
Generally speaking, you are expected to take a very active role in your studies. On reflection it seems that in the UK, students are very much spoon fed with regard to timetables, lectures and information about the course. In Spain it is the norm to make up your own timetable and self studying has much heavier influence on your time. This means you are very much in charge of your academic development, but can come as a shock when you are used to being told what to study in the UK. The enrolment process is different too. Most universities work on the system of allowing two months from the start of the semester for enrolling. This allows students to try different classes and then enrol on the ones they enjoy and are actually running!
Normally, the classes are very large and a lecture is just that; a lecture! Notes are available from the 'Reprografia' (reprographics) for a small amount and will save you having to listen and scribble down notes at the same time. Another interesting curiosity is that Lecturers in Spain are more renowned for not turning up than the students! It is a slight role reversal from the UK. Also you should be prepared for lectures to be cancelled or changed without notice. It is an unwritten law that if the lecturer is more than 10 minutes late- the lecture is not going to happen, and everyone leaves. Depending on whether your home university requires you to pass the year, would determine how problematic this may be.
Facilities are much more sparse and restricted than in the UK. Be prepared for internet cafes to become your second home as computing facilities generally are not for free student use. Each University does have some access but not nearly enough for all the students and times are variable. There are also different times for seeing tutors and lecturers. Often times for seeing staff are very tight and do not be surprised if it takes you a couple of attempts to actually find the lecturer in their room at the right time! Saying that, contacting lecturers through email is a good way of sorting out simple matters and saves a lot of time running round university getting frustrated!
On a more positive note, every University offers an intensive Spanish course for all new Erasmus students and this is an excellent way of making new mates; even though they are not Spanish. The course itself is highly worth doing. It varies in length but generally 3 to 4 weeks is the norm. It covers different grammatical aspects depending on your level of Spanish.
The problem is often the common language amongst all the students is English so to begin with, so you may find it hard to actually practice any Spanish! However, as the Erasmus social scene gets going you will have no problem finding Spaniards to practice with. The Spaniards enjoy a good fiesta at home and often once the neighbours have complained, the partying continues on the streets, squares and bars until the next morning. Gone are the 02.00 closing times of the UK; here in Spain don't even think about going out before 23.00 (unless you want to be the only ones in the bar!)
As with most Andalusians, Spanish students are very friendly and open, but are equally different from other European students. The main difference is that they are generally younger and more dependent than students from the UK. They nearly all live at home with their parents and so there is a lack of student activity after lectures. Students tend to come to lessons and then go to the library, home or to the very noisy cafeteria. That is another major curiosity you will notice- how noisy Spaniards really are! You will probably find there is a cafeteria in every faculty building and it is always the place to meet up with friends or pass a few hours waiting for lectures. The best advice is to overcome shyness and just introduce yourself to a friendly looking classmate, you will more than likely get a positive response from them.
As for general living, it is highly recommended to try to share with other Spanish students. This gives you the opportunity to integrate with them, practice your Spanish and get away from living a tourist lifestyle. You will see endless adverts for 'busco compañero de piso' (looking for a flatmate) but see a few different flats before choosing as they vary widely.
The average cost of flats varies too, depending on location, but as a guide €250 to €300 a month for a decent city centre room is about the going rate. Málaga could be said to be the most expensive city to live in because of the influence tourism and the attraction of the beaches for when the intolerable summer sun arrives. Seville is a very popular student city too and has prices to match. If living in Seville, it is essential to have air conditioning in the flat, as being the hottest city in Spain, temperatures rise well past 40ºC in summer.
Other expenses such as food and going out are very much cheaper than back in the UK. For example a 'caña' (small beer) costs on average €1 and you can eat out and have a three course 'menu del dia' (menu of the day) for on average €7. There are restaurants and bars to suit all pockets but generally bars and cafes away from the main tourist areas are often the best value for money and give you a more Spanish experience.
One final piece of advice is that even though Andalusia is the home of the Costa del Sol, be prepared for temperatures in the winter to dip well below freezing. The further away from the coast the harsher the winters are. In general once the sun has set, the cold evenings are more reminiscent of the UK than Spain! Invest in a decent heater as most rental flats will not have heating fitted at all. On the positive side the winter only lasts 3 to 4 months with December, January and February being the coldest.