UK students head overseas in search of cheaper fees and academic excellence

Laura Tunbridge left school in Kent with four As and one B at A-level, but was rejected from Oxford University and all but one of her other choices. Rather than settle for second best, she took a gap year and set her sights on the American Ivy League.

"Studying in the US was something I'd always wanted to do but never believed it was a possibility," says the 20-year-old. "When I received my acceptance and financial aid offer from Yale, I was so shocked that I had a panic attack! There was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to study at Yale."

This summer, Yale is funding a trip to Ecuador to improve her Spanish. Laura is one of a growing number of British undergraduates looking beyond Britain's red brick and grey skies and seeking a top-flight education overseas. With UCAS application numbers continuing to soar, intakes being capped, higher education budgets cut and vice-chancellors pushing to raise the ceiling of £3,240 on tuition fees, a foreign education is attractive.

Now in the first year of a four-year liberal arts degree, Laura says it is actually cheaper for her to study at Yale than at home. Any student bright enough to gain admission to Yale is entitled to as much financial aid from the university as they can demonstrate they need. The full cost of attendance for Laura (including tuition, room, board and travel) is $56,000 (£37,500) a year, but she gets 94 per cent financial aid, leaving around $3,360 (£2,250) a year to fund herself. "The only downside is that my parents have to take on this expense," she says.

In 2008-09, a record 8,701 students from Britain studied in America, a 4 per cent rise on the previous year, and a 3 per cent increase in those taking undergraduate degrees, according to the Fulbright Commission which awards and advises on American scholarships for British students. "In addition to improvements to the US visa application process we suspect there has been an 'Obama effect' on international student interest in the US and a growing recognition of the value of a more international education," says Lauren Welch, the Commission's head of advising.

Europe is welcoming British students in growing numbers. Last year a record 10,843 British students – a 6 per cent rise – took advantage of the Erasmus programme which enables EU students to spend a year of their degree studying abroad. A few intrepid souls are breaking free of their island mentality and crossing the Channel for full three-year degrees, making the most of EU rules which allow them to pay the same fees as domestic students. Maastricht University in the Netherlands, which teaches in English, had 43 British students last year. There are 57 applying for September. Maastricht is so taken with its new arrivals that it wants to be part of UCAS. Fees are around €1,620 (£1,468) a year, and the top 3 per cent have their fees waived.

In Italy, Milan's Bocconi university teaches 22 programmes in English. Its undergraduate courses in international economics, management and finance have 15 British students enrolled. Fees range from €4,400 (£3,987) to €9,950 (£9,016) a year, though the school does offer scholarships.

Antipodean universities, meanwhile, are scenting blood in the waters of British higher education. "A large number of British students are applying to universities in Australia and New Zealand because of their strength in international rankings," says Sarah Nash, director of Study Options, a free advisory service. "Six Australian universities rank in the QS world top 50. That compares very favourably to the UK, which has eight institutions ranked at that level. At the moment, studying in Australia or New Zealand is more expensive, but that may change."

Thirteen Australian schools were recruiting at the QS Top Universities Fair at Earls Court in London last weekend, along with more than 100 other institutions from Britain and around the world. "Rising UK tuition fees and reductions in places will encourage many of the brightest UK school leavers to look at international study options," says Nunzio Quacquarelli, managing director of QS, the fair's organiser. "This trend is exacerbated by British nationals attracted by scholarships, academic excellence or lifestyle benefits overseas."