Poor in Paris? C'est la vie, mon ami

Studying abroad widens the horizons but plays havoc with the budget, says Stephen Pritchard
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The Independent Online
The year abroad is often the most valuable part of a language degree, but it can be fraught with financial problems, especially when sterling is weak, as it is now. For students who depend on a grant or savings paid in pounds, movement on the foreign exchange markets can quickly change a small surplus into a worrying debt.

The cost of converting money is a burden in itself. Now that Britain is outside the exchange rate mechanism, students going overseas often have to gamble on a favourable rate of exchange. Transferring the money in one lump sum to a French bank account, for example, means taking a chance on the rate being good on the day it goes through. The alternatives, such as using credit cards or cash machines to withdraw money when it is needed, spread the risk but attract higher bank charges.

Standards of living can also cause problems for students going abroad, especially to France and Germany, where entertainment, food, drink and rented accommodation can be much more expensive than in the UK. Given that most students struggle to make ends meet on a grant at home, a year abroad can become a real struggle.

By and large, universities recognise the problems and do their best to help. But there are important differences between departments' approaches. In particular, not all institutions agree on whether students should take paid work during their time overseas.

Students remain eligible to receive a local authority grant during the year abroad, as long as they are on a recognised four-year course. They can also apply for a student loan. Some universities are part of the European Union's Erasmus exchange scheme, which brings in an additional award (this varies from year to year). However, students may only work for a maximum of four hours a week during term and retain their grants.

At York, students are expected to enrol on a full-time course at a partner university during their year abroad. This normally precludes any paid work, though some students do teach English for a few hours a week. However, the university makes this clear when it recruits students, and offers a three-year degree for applicants who do not want to study at an overseas university.

Students need not be worse off than they are at home, according to Dr Bernadette Plunkett, lecturer in French and linguistics and tutor for the French year abroad. In part, this is because students in France are eligible for housing benefit of around a third of their rent or hall fees.

Students in northern France generally fare better than those at southern universities, such as Aix or Toulouse, which are farther from home and in more expensive areas. But York also employs an extensive network of local tutors to look after its students while they are overseas. These tutors can pick up problems and offer guidance. "We have not had any cases of people coming back because they have no money," Dr Plunkett says.

At the University of Western England, in Bristol, the language department adopts a different approach. All students are encouraged to work during their year abroad, and the university has eight tutors tasked with finding placements.

Some companies are very generous, providing accommodation as well as pay. Not all students are able to find paid posts, though, and many fall back on unpaid work experience. "Most students now accept that their higher education is like the house or the car they will buy on hire-purchase: they will have to pay for it up front," says Professor Gareth Thomas, dean of the faculty of modern languages and European studies.

The advantage of a placement in business, rather than a university course or teaching assistantship, is that UWE's graduates find it relatively easy to find work. This makes money shortages during the year abroad easier to bear. "Employers value our graduates, and take them on," Professor Thomas says.

Students report that it is possible to manage financially during the year abroad - with careful planning. One frequent complaint is that casual work, now the mainstay of many students at home, is much harder to come by overseas.

Colin Shaw, a third-year European studies student at University College, London, is spending his year abroad in Paris, one of the most expensive European destinations. He says that finding work in France is a case of "word of mouth and who you know". It is also vital to arrive early. "There is McDonald's, bar and restaurant work," he says, "but the French students get there first. You have to come in September."

Colin teaches English, and is if anything better off than he was in the UK. This term, he has had to cut back from teaching 20 hours to 10 in order to complete his academic work. He now spends more free time on campus, where drinks and meals are cheap, rather than in Paris where a beer can cost pounds 4.

Rebecca Allen is a final-year French and linguistics student at York. Last year, she studied at Strasbourg. She was better off in France, mainly because she stayed in a hall of residence. Friends who rented private accommodation fared less well. "Strasbourg is more expensive," she says. "Food and drink costs quite a bit more; you can't be frivolous with your money."

Even so, Rebecca believes she gained from her time in France. "It can be very useful to study in a foreign language," she says. "It is quite a daunting prospect to walk into a lecture there, and have to take notes for one to two hours."

Dr Plunkett agrees that if a year abroad is properly organised, students are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices. "Most people, if they are getting a good experience, will make do with being dead poor for a year," she says.