With two-thirds of English universities planning to charge the full £9,000-a-year tuition fee from 2012, it might be years before the undergraduates of tomorrow can afford to leave home — should they secure a place at all. In 2010 more than 200,000 missed out, and thousands more faced the uncertainty of Clearing.
If all this makes you wonder whether it’s worth the effort, you’re not alone. More than 20,000 British students each year are taking their chances abroad. In addition, around 17,000 study or work abroad as part of their degree at a British institution.
According to a study published last year for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the primary reason for studying abroad was to attend a top-class university. Sixteen of the world’s top 20 universities are in North America, according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2010-11.
Three of the remaining four are British, while Hong Kong is at 21, and Tokyo, Singapore and Melbourne rank above Edinburgh. In Europe, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Göttingen and Munich universities, the Karolinska Institute (Sweden) and two of France’s grandes écoles all outrank Bristol University. Trinity College Dublin is above York and Durham, while Zurich and Lund are on a par with or surpass Southampton.
“If you want to study a subject such as medicine, veterinary science or architecture, for which places in the UK are particularly competitive, an overseas opportunity becomes even more attractive,” says Prof Allan Findlay, the BIS report’s co-author.
Almost any subject may now be oversubscribed at top British universities, and even three As at A-level may not be enough to guarantee a place.
From 2012, money will become another major driver. Although a degree at an Ivy League university in the States will set you back more than £20,000 a year, studying at many European universities remains virtually free — one of the benefits of EU membership.
Those who have studied abroad tend to get better degrees and earn higher salaries, and their experience gives them a leg up the career ladder. According to the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE), many British students don’t appreciate how the world of global graduate recruiting has changed. Multinational businesses want globally aware graduates. On every level, from planning and problem-solving to assertiveness and initiative, international students outshine their stay-at-home cousins, says the CIHE.
“People blossom when they study abroad,” confirms Beatrice Merrick, director of services and research at the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA). “It’s more challenging than going to a local university and you experience new ways of studying, as well as a different working culture.”
Many foreign universities are determined to attract British students, with American, German and Dutch institutions mounting high-profile recruitment drives. “Increasing diversity in the classroom improves the learning experience for all students, and there is an element of ‘soft diplomacy’: people who know your country and become informal ambassadors for you,” says Merrick.
Courses are often taught in English — not so much for the benefit of Britons as for students from the Far East — and universities may feel that English-speaking students act as an informal seal of approval.
Britons who study abroad are usually satisfied with the quality of tuition they receive, although there can be more emphasis on rote-learning and less on independent thought. The so-called Bologna Process has helped to standardise degrees across Europe, meaning that a foreign degree is more likely to be accepted and understood by UK employers.
»TAKE THE INITIATIVE
Anyone wanting to do their entire degree abroad must show initiative and approach universities individually as there is no equivalent of the UCAS system. The Times Higher Education rankings are a good starting point for creating a shortlist.
“We’re a kind of ‘FTSE 100’ for universities, and we use 13 indicators to give a really strong indication of each university in the round,” says Phil Baty, the rankings’ editor. Indicators range from published research, citations and reputation among other academics, to teaching excellence, student/staff ratios and the proportion of international students.
The alternative is to spend time abroad (usually half of or one academic year) while studying at a UK university. The most popular route is through the EU-funded Erasmus programme, which embraces all the EU member states, plus Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Croatia and Turkey. Students can study or do a work placement, such as teaching English in a school. Study must be related to their degree and counts as part of their course.
“When undergraduates study for part of their degree abroad, it’s usually through an existing relationship between institutions, so it’s something students should think about before applying to university,” says David Hibler, Erasmus programme manager at the British Council, which administers the scheme in the UK.
“While studying abroad may be an exciting proposition for students, it can be a wrench for parents. Thankfully, the internet and Skype are making it increasingly easy to stay in touch.
As Beatrice Merrick concludes, “Students could be getting better-value education and a qualification that really makes them stand out. And they’ll be too far away to bring their washing home.”
It’s easy to get carried away with the idea of an exciting new life in a different country. If you’re heading abroad, consider the following:
• Does your degree count here? It sounds obvious, but, especially for vocational subjects such as law or medicine, find out if your course counts in the UK.
• Triple-check the budget: count hidden extras such as trips home from Italy, local council taxes or the price of beer in Norway. A pound may buy you less next year, so if you’re funded in sterling make the necessary allowances.
• Look into health insurance: few countries offer free healthcare, like the NHS, so you may need to buy private health insurance, especially in the US.
• Immigration issues: sort out your visa — even within the EU there may be formalities, such as having a passport with two years’ validity remaining.
• Where to stay? Where you stay in the first year, and how much it costs, will have an impact on how happy you are, so explore options early on.
• Sort out currency: for most, a bank account in the country of study is the easiest choice, but you may need proof of address to open one, so a sterling account could be a stop-gap. Check charges for international card payments and transfers.
• Prepare for red tape: make sure you have documents such as birth certificates, keep multiple copies of everything and get plenty of passport photos.
• Stay in touch: sign up for Skype and upgrade roaming on your mobile. In the long run, however, it will work out cheaper to get a local contract.
This article was taken from the Daily Telegraph’s Studying Abroad supplement, published on May 14 2011
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