She could get a place to study at Oxford or Cambridge. So why is Dominique off to Harvard instead?

Growing numbers of Britons are choosing to study in America instead of here. Helen McCormack reports

But the 18-year-old does not have a place at Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial or any other of Britain's "ivy league" colleges. Instead she is one of the growing numbers rejecting the UK's cash-strapped higher education system and heading for the States.

Five years after the state-school student Laura Spence became a cause célèbre - she went to Harvard following a high-profile rejection by Oxford - thousands are following in her wake to study abroad, lured by world-class teaching, generous financial support and facilities that British-based students can only dream of.

The number of Britons opting to study at the real Ivy League universities in the US has doubled in the past eight years - Harvard now has around 200 - and with UK student debt rising and tuition fees about to soar, the trend is certain to continue. Inquiries from British students seeking to study in America have tripled in the past three years, according to the London-based US Education Advisory Service (USEAS). In total, American colleges now teach some 8,000 British students.

This week, Ms Gracia starts her four-year degree at Harvard where, along with a dozen or so other British students, she has spent the past few days acclimatising.

"I'm happier at Harvard than I would have been at Oxford or Cambridge, where the courses are more restrictive," she said yesterday. "Harvard is a bit more liberal. It's very much a student-based place. I did consider Oxford and Cambridge, but it was never a big ambition to go there."

Ms Graciawent to Cyfarthfa High School, a state school in Merthyr Tydfil, where she took maths, further maths, physics and chemistry A-levels. In the UK she would have studied physics from the start: in the US the students do a range of subjects, only specialising later - a real attraction for many.

The trend is now prompting warnings of a "brain drain" of Britain's most academically gifted students. Australian universities have also seen admissions from UK students rise by more than eight per cent in two years.

"It's constantly going up," Anthony Nemecek, the director of the USEAS, said of the surge of interest from Britain. "It's been quite staggering. And we can't ignore the introduction of fees in British institutions. People are thinking that if they are going to have to pay something, they are going to look at all the options, here, in the US, in Europe, or wherever."

Studying abroad, particularly in America, was seen as a luxury for all but the most well-off families. Top-up fees, due to be introduced next year, have neutralised the extra cost. Moreover, top-ranking US universities are frequently able to offer significant financial support.

The interest from British students increased by 1.5 per cent last year, despite the impact of America's invasion of Iraq and the so-called war on terror, which are considered to be the major contributing factors in a 28 per cent overall decline in numbers of foreign students applying to the US.

Steve Lay, the executive officer of the London office for Monash University, one of Australia's leading institutions, said: "The top-up fees are going to go up. As they do, we're going to see an even faster increase in the number of students wanting to go to universities outside the UK."

The ability to continue in general study persuaded Alice Fishburn, 23, to reject a place at Bristol University after achieving five As at A-level and instead takea place at Harvard. "I think it's very good for people who don't really know what they want to do yet," said Ms Fishburne, who eventually majored in American history and literature and, after graduating in June, is pursuing a career in journalism.

"The British system pushes you into making decisions about your career you often do not feel comfortable with aged 18 or 19. If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, that's great, but if not, specialising so early is not necessarily the best thing for you." Researching which American university to attend and preparing the visit was still a daunting prospect, said Ms Fishburne, who decided to write Uni in the USA: The UK Guide to US Universities to help others in her position.

The trend shows that Britain's top universities are not doing enough to ensure gifted students stay in the UK, said Paul Kelley, the American headmaster of Monkseaton Community High School, Tyne and Wear, who helped to spark the dispute about Oxford's admission system in 2000 after one of his pupils, Laura Spence, was refused a place at Magdalen College.

"American universities offer an awful lot to British students, and with the introduction of top-up fees, the cost benefits are coming closer together," he said. "The UK is already losing academic staff to American universities, but to begin to lose people at 18 is worrying indeed."

The Government is considering plans to change the way students apply to university in this country because the system is weighted against bright students from poorer backgrounds. A report published last week proposed that offers are made on actual A-level results by 2010.

LAURA'S IVY LEAGUE SUCCESS

Laura Spence is doing what she always wanted to do - studying medicine at a British university.

The state-school pupil from Monkseaton in Tyne and Wear found herself at the heart of a political storm in 2000. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, claimed Oxford University had been elitist to deny her a place. He described the rejection as an "absolute scandal". Instead, Laura, 23, read biochemistry at Harvard.

Now she is taking a postgraduate medical course at Cambridge, but believes others should follow the same route.

The US, she said, made her "substantially more well rounded, confident and better prepared to make a contribution to medicine".Fees are steep at $37,000 (£20,000) a year - but Ivy League universities can provide financial assistance.

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