Worried about the crush for a place at university? As UK degrees become more expensive and places hard to get, more students are applying abroad as a back-up
Universities minister David Willetts admitted he wasn’t surprised by official Ucas figures showing that thousands more students have applied to start university this autumn. Applications are up as students try to avoid the tuition fee rise that will see some courses cost £27,000 from 2012, and because thousands missed out on places last year. But the government might be more concerned about another growing trend in higher education: early signs indicate that thousands of sixth-formers are considering opting out of the UK system completely, and applying for what they see as a cheaper, better-funded degree from universities in the rest of Europe and the US.
Take Tom King, 17, an A-level student at Stourport sixth-form centre in Worcester. Until this summer, he had planned to apply to study politics at UK universities including the London School of Economics, York and City University London. But as news of tuition fee increases and funding cuts was released, he broadened his horizons. “I read about Dutch universities appealing to British students,” King explains, “and found that universities in Holland have fees of … a third of those here [even before the fees rise to a maximum £9,000 a year].
“I am willing to pay to go to university, but the fact that tuition fees are much lower makes universities overseas very attractive. And I think the fact that the government is making cuts to universities next year will cause severe difficulties and probably leave some of our universities less well funded than those abroad.”
Now, as well as applying to UK universities, King is applying to read international relations at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. He believes recruiters will be just as impressed by a Dutch qualification. “I think employers will see the value of me having studied abroad and the different experiences and skills I would bring to a job,” he says. “I think that learning Dutch, as I would hope to do, would make me a desirable employee.”
King is not alone. As students in the UK press the “send” button on their Ucas forms ahead of Saturday’s deadline, many are remembering the 209,000 wannabe undergraduates who missed out entirely on a university place last year, and are applying to overseas institutions as a back-up. European and US universities report soaring levels of interest from British students. According to the Fulbright Commission, which helps to co-ordinate transatlantic study, more than 4,000 students and parents attended its US college information day in September – 50% more than the same time last year. Traffic from the UK on the Fulbrightwebsite on how to apply to US campuses is 30% higher than it was last year.
It’s tougher to obtain figures for study in European universities as applications tend to go in later. But individual institutions are reporting far more interest from the UK. At Maastricht University in Holland, for example, where fees are €1,672 a year (£1,500) for under-30s, admissions tutors report double the number of applications from UK students this year. Although applications for its earliest courses don’t close until May, more than 100 British students have already applied for its English-language degrees in subjects including European law, IT, life sciences and econometrics. The umbrella body for Denmark’s universities said it had also noted a “slight increase” in the number of degree students from the UK.
“British students and parents are feeling the squeeze between rising tuition and budget cuts at UK universities,” says Lauren Welch, of the Fulbright Commission. “Students are going to study where they can get the most bang for their buck. More students are throwing their hats into the ring in other countries to increase their chances of having at least one offer come next summer.”
Polina Borisova, 18, who is in year 13 studying five A-levels at Presdales school, a comprehensive in Hertfordshire, is doing just that. She is applying to study physics at Yale, Harvard, Columbia and MIT in the US as well as UK universities because, she says, she is worried about the impact of cost-cutting on universities here. “I always wanted to study physics, and last summer arranged work experience on a research project at the University of Hertfordshire,” says Borisova. “I knew the science budget was being cut by as much as £600m, and the professors and PhD students I worked with supported my plans to go to the US to study science. Science seems to be one of President Obama’s top priorities – a lot of research institutions are enjoying funding increases.”
Borisova believes the cost difference may not be significant. “Whilst a US education is expensive, the UK is catching up,” she says. “There’s no point in staying here, paying as much money as in the US, but getting poor facilities and fewer opportunities. The tuition fees rise in the UK removed any doubts I had about applying abroad. I’m asking for financial aid at all the US universities, and at, say, Harvard the financial aid I could expect to receive is about $40,000 (£25,500) a year. The fees are about $50,000 so I’d still end up having to pay $10,000 (£6,400), but I think that would work out cheaper than paying the new rates in the UK.”
The students all point out that the financial benefits may go beyond cheaper fees. When King visited Netherlands universities’ open days, English students already studying there told him about state grants paid to students needing paid jobs for more than a certain number of hours per week. “I may also qualify for very generous international student grants,” he adds, “including a monthly allowance of €1,000.”
Many employers approve of students’ flight overseas, says Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters. “It takes plenty of self-confidence, determination and motivation to pursue your higher education overseas. I can’t see it doing anything but good to career prospects.”
Applying to foreign universities usually means extra leg work, including multiple applications as well as Ucas for European institutions (although deadlines tend to be spread out later in the year). For US universities, applications are even more demanding, often requiring several essays as well as admissions exams generally taken in year 13. King says he felt the disadvantage is “not having the expert guidance on the application system the school is able to provide with Ucas.”
But it’s not just undergraduates considering study overseas. Cai Weaver, 24, is in his final year of a politics degree at Aberystwyth University. “I was searching for master’s courses in the UK, and was shocked by the prices,” he says. “For master’s courses the only funding available is a career development loan (CDL) of up to £10,000.” Weaver’s top-choice degree in the UK, diplomacy studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, charges fees of £12,810.
“Postgraduate education here seems to be for the privileged,” he says. “I don’t see the point of applying to UK institutions when they are underfunded, and the fees are too high for the amount of contact time and the standards of education.” Instead, Weaver is applying for master’s courses at universities in Finland and Sweden. “There are no tuition fees at all, which means I could use the CDL for money to live on,” he says. “The future for higher education in the UK is bleak. Most of my friends are in the same boat with their postgraduate education – looking at foreign universities because they are cheaper and better funded.”
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