Why stay in UK when you can study abroad in a sunny country offering lower fees?

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The Independent Online

As we emerge from a long, cold British winter, it's not difficult to understand why thousands of UK school-leavers are attracted by the idea of studying for their degree abroad in sunnier climes. All kinds of students are seduced by the notion of looking overseas to study: those who aim very high – at Oxford and Cambridge – can be seduced by some California dreaming, as well as those whose alternative may be a degree course in a rainy British city.

More than 20,000 Brits enrol at universities abroad every year. Just less than half of these go to EU countries as part of the Erasmus programme, typically for one academic year away from their UK university. But most of the rest go farther afield, and go for longer, often undertaking a full degree course at a foreign institution, usually in an English-speaking country. One of the most popular countries is the US.

"Our sense is that it's become more popular for British students to do an undergraduate degree in the US," says Lauren Welch, head of advising at the London office of the US-UK Fulbright Commission, which sends students in both directions across the Atlantic.

"When we held our annual USA College Day in central London last autumn, we had 3,000 students and parents there, which was our biggest-ever attendance," she says.

There are currently more then 8,000 British students at US universities, half of whom are undergraduates. Among the 10 most popular destinations are three universities in California (Berkeley, UCLA and the University of Southern California), where year-round sun adds to the allure, and the Ivy League trio of Harvard, Yale and Columbia.

In addition to holding the right A-Levels and GCSEs, applicants to nearly all US universities are required to take an admissions exam, either the SAT Reasoning Test, or one called the ACT test. For the more competitive colleges, students also have to take the SAT Subject Test.

The Fulbright website (www.fulbright.co.uk) tells you how to apply to an American university, and gives you an indication of what it might cost. On top of travel, accommodation and living expenses, tuition fees constitute a substantial bill. Average fee figures hover around the $20,000 (£14,500) mark a year, but the top institutions demand nearly double that. All universities, however, offer scholarships and grants to many students.

Joel Semakula, from east London, is in his first year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying political science and economics on a scholarship from the Morehead-Cain Foundation.

"I'm really enjoying it, but you definitely have to work for your grades here," he says. "We get tested regularly and every assignment matters."

He's also relishing the social side of American college life.

"One thing I love is the student spirit and that everyone knows all the chants that are sung when there's a basketball match against another university."

The other main popular destination is Australia, where the obvious attractions of climate, and the opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors, exert a substantial pull, augmented by family links down the generations.

Over the past decade, the number of Brits doing degrees Down Under has risen from about 400 a year to the current figure of 1,400. There are a couple of bodies that help with the selection and application process for Australian universities. IDP Education has a worldwide network of offices, and plenty of help available online (www.idp.com), but closed down its London operation a few years ago. An organisation called Study Options (www.studyoptions.com) has emerged in its place, offering a free service to students, paid for ultimately by money from the marketing budgets of universities in Australia and New Zealand.

One of the co-directors of Study Options, Stefan Watts, from Hertford, who did a business degree at the University of Newcastle, Australia, says it's rarely a hard sell persuading young students to follow in his footsteps.

"One of the veterinary-science courses does research at a dolphin-rehabilitation centre, and when we talk to students about marine-biology degrees, the comparison we make is between the Great Barrier Reef and the North Sea," he says.

Another, more prosaic attraction, according to Watts, is that teaching methods are broadly the same as in the UK, easing any subsequent transfer to a postgraduate course back home. And the fees are generally lower than in America, too. A typical degree course costs £7,000 to £10,000 a year.

And unlike the US, most Australian institutions do not ask applicants to sit a separate admissions test. A-Levels or the International Baccalaureate normally suffice.

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