Employability and academic standards come to the fore as practical, vocational work experience and first-class academic training blend with religious traditions and international connections at Madrid’s Comillas Pontifical University, which is currently strengthening its links with China.
A private, Jesuit-administered Catholic institution located in the heart of Madrid, Spain, the Universidad Pontificia Comillas ICAI-ICADE prides itself on the high standards of its teaching. Its close professional interaction with social organisations and the business community – it has collaboration agreements with more than 7,000 national and international companies – help ensure its students graduate as the next generation of well-rounded entrepreneurs.
An advocate of broadening horizons, Comillas also has bilateral agreements in place with more than 240 universities around the world, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Shanghai International Studies University and King’s College London. Furthermore, it is one of the leading Spanish universities in terms of Erasmus exchange students in proportion to its own students, and belongs to prestigious international university networks.
Julio Luis Martínez, Rector of Universidad Pontificia Comillas ICAI-ICADE, and Pedro Linares, Vice-Rector of Investigation and Internationalisation discuss with Vista Reports what makes the university stand out.
In 2010, China sent the highest number of its students abroad, and the number of students coming to Spain in particular is growing, with Madrid being their favourite destination in the country. What competitive advantages does Madrid have over other destinations such as London or cities in the US?
Madrid has many advantages, given that it is the capital city of one of the most attractive and important countries globally in terms of tourism. We are a varied country with a rich cultural, geographical and artistic offering. Madrid is particularly attractive as it is a capital city; it is a very cosmopolitan city, an international business centre, with a significant number of universities, and the weather is good, particularly if we compare it to other cities in the world at the same level. We should also not forget the Spanish language, which is of paramount importance.
The language is a very important part, as well as the fact that the city is welcoming – all students tell us that it is very easy to integrate into student life in Madrid. The city is also the gateway to Latin America and there is a very strong link with Latin America, and many students make the most of this when meeting companies or managing their scholarships.
I would also like to highlight the fact that Spaniards are very hospitable and welcoming towards people from other cultures; they are naturally open to different things, and I think we are quite an approachable society. People who come here from across the world generally feel comfortable and they do not usually have issues integrating into society.
Spain is the most sought-after destination amongst Erasmus students. How can you use this experience when welcoming and attracting Chinese students?
European students are very different to Chinese students, in terms of their training, and the way they are and think is different, so we cannot use this experience with Erasmus students directly. However, we have an infrastructure in place for foreign students at the university, which we have developed over many years, so we can help them find accommodation, integrate into student life, and find them a “buddy” who can help them manage academic issues over their first few days here. We currently welcome postgraduate Chinese students to the university, not undergraduate students at the moment, although we do hope to receive them in the foreseeable future. I, for example teach them, and they integrate perfectly into student life.
One of the pillars of the Universidad Pontificia Comillas ICAI-ICADE is internationalisation – the university has signed agreements with four leading Chinese universities. What have you got out of these agreements, and what would you like to highlight in order to help increase the number of Chinese students coming to the university?
These agreements are working very well; however we would like to extend them. Initially, the Chinese government only wished to sign agreements with public universities, although they now want to give their students the option to come and study here. A representative from the Chinese Embassy came to Comillas to visit the university and find out more about it, with a view to bringing us on board. This is the first step for us – once we are authorized by the Chinese government to receive graduate-level exchanges, we will be able to work with more universities.
This does not mean that we do not currently have a presence in China however – we have had a series of programmes called Inside, where our students go to different countries around the world to get to know their institutions. We have had an Inside project in China for several years now, which enables us to go to universities in Shanghai and Peking. Now the graduate door is open, we will start to develop more relationships with China.
How successful are these programmes?
The Inside programmes are a great success. We are not offering many places, because it is always difficult to manage the movement of students, although we offer 20 to 25 places every year, which is always enough. We recently had a diploma ceremony, and when you speak to the students they tell you that they are delighted that they were given the opportunity to get to know China and its institutions in more detail. We want to continue working on this programme, and if at one point it would make sense to increase capacity, we will do so. However we are very happy at the moment, and so are the Chinese students who come over here. China is a very attractive country for us, and we already have many years of international experience with the country.
We were talking about how learning Spanish is very important; however at the same time, I believe we should increase the number of subjects we offer in English, because although Spanish is attractive, if you offer subjects in a language that foreign students can speak, that makes things easier. As a result, foreign students can learn Spanish gradually.
According to El Mundo newspaper’s 2009 and 2011 rankings, your university is one of the top universities in Europe, and is number four in terms of industrial engineering. What has enabled you to rank so highly?
Employability and academic standards are two key factors. However, there is another very important factor; we have a selection process, which means that only the very best students can come to study at the university – and when you have the best students, this really helps.
We also have an education system where teachers are available for students from the very beginning, which means that attention is paid to the very last detail of the training we provide, and students feel as if they are being educated and trained.
Another very important aspect is that we get companies involved in the training process – in recent years, we have started to get professors who come to the university with experience from companies, and students value this. This also improves links with the job market, as our graduate students who do not want to continue studying get a job within six months. This is as a result of a good mix of different factors – good training, contact with the business world, and a very strong alumni network. Whilst universities in Spain have suffered this year, applications have increased for all our degrees.
I would like to talk about the Time (Top Industrial Managers for Europe) network, which was founded by ICAI, which brings together the most prestigious industrial engineering schools in Europe in order to obtain dual award degrees. What options are available to Chinese students in this regard?
There are two types of engineering programmes – a national itinerary and an international itinerary. For the international itinerary, we ensure that the students who study with us can go on an exchange for two years and obtain a dual award degree. We have agreements with the most prestigious universities, including Munich and Dusseldorf in Germany, and the École Central de Paris. The training period lasts six years – four years for the undergraduate degree plus a Masters over two years, and from the third year students tell us where they would like to go on exchange.
Our study programme enables them to go on a two-year exchange, and when they finish their studies, they will obtain two Masters degrees. That is the case for Europe.
We are also members of the Global Engineering Network in the US, which has a very select number of participants. However, dual-award degrees are not available in this network, although we are working to achieve this, but there are exchanges for one year at least at the most prestigious engineering universities. We also have these kinds of programmes for law, business studies and humanities degree programmes, and we have an agreement with Wharton University in Pennsylvania for business degrees. Our students have a wide range of options available to them in both the US and Europe.
The quality of the Universidad de Comillas is not only apparent in terms of the agreements it has with international universities. According to École des Mines de Paris’ 2010 ranking, Comillas is one of the top 30 universities in the world in terms of training professionals and top management. How strong are your postgraduate studies?
The great advantage we have is that we bring all our teaching strengths to graduate level. We apply the same academic rigor to our postgraduate degrees, and we do not let our postgraduate courses to be made up of a series of conferences – our students have to come to class and study. One of our strengths is the relationship we have with the professional engineering world, law, business studies, psychology and business studies and translation, with the top companies in the country. They do not just provide us with professors, but they also look to employ our students.
The École des Mines de Paris ranking that you mentioned is very important, as it highlights the key positions that our alumni hold in multinational companies and institutions as well as highly influential political social and financial positions. For example, the president of Iberdrola is an engineering alumnus, and we also have a lot of people in other foreign and Spanish firms, which is why we are highly ranked in this area. This ranking is a good indicator of how successful our students are in the professional world. It is very true that companies from all sectors wish to employ our students.
You have agreements with institutions that are in the top 20 and top 100 in the Shanghai rankings.
We only want to sign agreements with universities of the same calibre as us. We also have an agreement with the Australian National University and the University of Auckland in New Zealand, so we also have a presence in the southern region of the world.
One of the most important novelties in the university education sector in Europe has been the Bologna Declaration, which has created a European higher education space. What benefits does the Bologna Declaration offer Chinese students and why do you think that the E-4 dual award degree is the best in terms of pan-European experience?
Bologna has caused universities to focus on developing students’ competences, so that they learn as best as they can. We have been doing this for a while at Comillas, so Bologna has strengthened our way of working with students. Tailoring programmes, tutoring, demand and selection have been strengthened by the European Higher Education Space (Espacio Europeo de Educación Superior – EEES).
Bologna also seeks to enable freer movement of students between higher education institutions, although prior to Bologna, we were very well placed in this regard. For example, our E-4 degree is a business degree that has become a dual-award degree, because it can be completed with two years of studying here, and two years at a university abroad, such as in the UK, the US, France or Germany. It was our own degree for years, because it was not officially recognised as a degree by Spanish universities, however it was really successful. Now it is 100% official and it has high added value.
It was a degree programme that Comillas and ICADE developed at a specific moment in time, however Spain did not acknowledge it in its public system. However with Bologna, these degrees are now more valued. We have also been offering dual degrees in law and business studies, or law and international relations, business studies and international relations, or translation and interpretation and international relations. These degrees are studied over a five-year period as opposed to four, and students obtain two degrees in five years. This is particularly significant because Bologna has enabled us to do this, as it recognises that these types of programmes are very valuable for European higher education. It has also highlighted our education style, which is focused on people and the importance of being connected to the business and professional world.
In 2007, you launched the first energy technology Masters professorship in Europe in conjunction with Endesa and MIT, and you have recently launched the Fundación Repsol de Familia y Discapacidad foundation. How important is innovation to you in terms of corporate social responsibility, and working together with leading global universities such as MIT and Endesa?
It is very important, and working together with MIT and Endesa is just one example of this. We have an internationalisation and corporate diversity professorship with Cassidian, another with Iberdrola, and an energy and sustainability professorship with BP.
We have 12 professorships in total. We have professorships and research agreements with top Spanish and international firms. There have recently been rumours circulating that people do not want companies in universities; however we want to work with the business sector, as they provide us with professional experience. MIT is a benchmark in the engineering world, and we have a very interesting relationship, because they do not just work with us – we also hold courses at MIT for the electricity sector because they do not have the capacity to do so.
For us, innovation is extremely important; it is part of our university. We are not scared of changing in order to improve – that is in Comillas’ DNA, and we are always improving our most successful degree courses. The world is very fast moving, and we are a complex but very agile institution because we are able to change things that we think need to be changed, and this is how we differentiate ourselves from public universities.
One of the reasons why we work with some American universities is because our philosophies are very similar. There are other institutions which are more bureaucratic, and where it is more difficult to reach agreements.
We are also innovative in both teaching and socially, in terms of how we understand the world, society and people, in order to provide better services to society. In this regard, we have the family and disability professorship, and the Down’s Syndrome Foundation, where boys and girls with Down’s Syndrome complete specific training modules and they study from Monday to Friday at our campus on the outskirts of Madrid. This is part of the services we provide to society, and it shows that we are not concerned with making changes when we believe these to be beneficial. We believe this is good for everyone.
Universidad Comillas ICAI-ICADE is a not-for-profit institution – we are not aiming to make money at the university – all our profits are reinvested back into our students. Our primary objective is to provide a good service by training our students and conducting research with services to society always at the forefront of our activities.
In 2007, the Minister of Education signed an agreement with its Chinese counterpart to enable a greater flow of students between both countries. How important is this agreement to you?
Being part of this international exchange is very important. China is a global power in terms of business and education, and if we want to have a global presence we need to communicate with China. Chinese students are very important, but we want them over here with Spanish students and students from around the world, because we want a global university that reflects the world we are in, and we want our students to enjoy this experience.
In a globalised world, the relationship between globalisation and economic growth is becoming increasingly important. In actual fact the London School of Economics offers a Masters in Media Communications and Development given the relationship between these two areas. How do you value the power of communication?
One of the questions on the table as regards globalisation is that we are in knowledge societies, as well as communication societies. There is an exchange and a global interdependence at all levels, and being well communicated is part of a mutual knowledge process, and one cannot be further from the other.
Having said this, however, we cannot communicate without foundation, and I am a little concerned that the greatest concern is marketing or how to express ideas without worrying about the basis behind this. We are more concerned with the basis than the communication of it. Nevertheless, I also understand that we have to leave these kinds of concerns behind, because we really need communication in the world in which we live at present.
However, we are still more concerned in providing a good university, and serving our students well, and researching critical areas, as opposed to selling ourselves well. Communication is very important, but one must be careful – it must not be all smoke and mirrors. Our aim is provide services, and we want whatever we say to be in line with the reality on the ground.
In Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ comes from two characters, danger and opportunity. Is Spain a good opportunity for Chinese students?
Over the past two years we have been in a crisis, we have seen our students becoming more entrepreneurial. Demand is increasing to expand the training we provide in entrepreneurship, and even our own students are demanding this. This is very interesting in the sense that any Chinese student that comes over with good training and good ideas can execute these ideas and develop them. Any student who comes with good training in companies and technology and who wishes to develop further in Spain has many opportunities open to them.
At the moment, Spanish society needs to develop projects that create a business environment and favour the creation of employment. Anybody who comes here with good ideas and the ability to invest will find that Spain is a great place to invest and earn returns, because Spain has a sound workforce and is the 10th country in terms of the quality of its infrastructure.
The Chinese should know that we will also really appreciate those who create wealth in the country.
The word ‘crisis’ in Greek means a period of conflict, full of positive opportunities for growth. Every time we eat, our body digests the food, which is a ‘beneficial crisis’ for our body, and it is only a problem when it shows that our body is not working well.
The crisis we are experiencing is once again a real opportunity to do things better and change what we need to. If only we could make the most of it. Comillas ICAI-ICADE has 11,400 excellent students, and we have an important role to play. Our main value is the high level of our students who are ready to influence society. We are a solvent and solid institution, in which people continue to trust.