There's never been a better time to head abroad for your studies

Rising fees at home have made other countries a tempting destination for UK students. By Stephen Hoare

With university tuition fees rising to a maximum of £9,000 a year from 2012, UK students are increasingly exploring their options for studying overseas. With some degrees in Scandinavia still free to EU students and with scholarships available elsewhere to tempt the academically gifted, now is a good time to begin looking at the alternatives.

The Open Doors report by the US Institute for International Education found that a record 8,861 UK students studied in US universities in 2009/10, marking a 1.8 per cent increase from the previous year. A little under half of all UK students heading to the US are studying at undergraduate level, while a third take postgraduate degrees.

Next term, Erica Leishman from Manchester will fly out to begin a Bachelors degree in digital arts at the University of Oregon. “I always wanted to study in America, because I’ve got dual citizenship and family there. I think that the range of subjects on offer is a lot more exciting than in the UK. In my first semester I’m going to be studying French, tragedy in literature, art, kickboxing and drama,” says Leishman.

US universities teach a general first year that allows for a wide breadth of study. Students taking liberal arts degrees only have to choose their major subject in the third year. This has advantages over the UK system, where subject specialism does not allow for easy changes of direction. Leishman’s degree will last four years, in which time she will take a mix of arts and science as well as her major, optional languages and sports. Each module contributes credits towards her final degree.

The University of Oregon is run by the state, which means local students pay lower fees. Leishman found she qualified for an out of state grant to help offset annual tuition fees of around $20,000 (£12,200). Although high, many American institutions offer generous scholarships. Well endowed by their alumni networks and with a tradition of gifting money, many private universities seek to attract the most academically gifted UK students with full or half-cost scholarships, particularly at private universities and the elite Ivy League institutions, such as Harvard, Wharton, Yale and Stanford. You’ll need to be quick, because they tend to have early deadlines. There may also be scholarships attached to specific subjects, says Leishman, who receives a $7,000 (£4,200) a year from such a programme.

UK students should also apply early for their visa through the US embassy. Since Leishman has dual nationality she was able to apply as a non-resident and was even eligible for a US government loan. There is no equivalent to Ucas in the US, so students must apply directly to universities.

Ruth Kinsey, who graduated in May with a magna cum laude honours degree in German and history from Vanderbilt University Nashville, was in the sixth form of Wycombe Abbey school when the dean of Vanderbilt’s school of arts and sciences came to give a talk.

After a holiday visit to several US universities the summer before she applied, Kinsey narrowed her shortlist to two, Johns Hopkins University and Vanderbilt, which won her over by awarding her four scholarships to pay all her tuition, accommodation and living expenses. In the course of a four-year degree, Kinsey received just over $200,000 (£122,300) in scholarships. “It is very unlikely Ruth would have been offered a place to study history at an English university as she had studied all science A-levels at school. With the American system, she didn’t have to specialise immediately. Vanderbilt gave her the chance to change academic direction, says her mother, Sue Kinsey. “My husband and I pay her air fares and medical insurance but, as we are both teachers, without a full scholarship there’s no way we could have afforded to subsidise her,” she says.

Like all UK students wanting to study in the US, Kinsey had to take a scholastic aptitude test (SAT), a standard for university admission based on mathematics, critical reading and writing. She scored over 1,470. “I started to major in history in my third year and in the final year I submitted a 60-page research paper. My topic was the history of the Jesuit mission to the Lakota Sioux in South Dakota,” says Kinsey.

Her time at Nashville will be memorable for another reason. While on the course, Kinsey met her future husband, Alex. They got married on 30 July at a church in Nashville. “Alex and I are now living in Madison Wisconsin and I’ve just started a new job at the Gordon Flesch Company as an executive assistant,” she says.

The Fulbright Commission offers scholarships to encourage talented international students to study in some of the best US universities. According to the Fulbright Commission, the top five US universities receiving UK students are Harvard University, New York University, Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California. A Fulbright award can cover the full tuition costs or even half the costs of a degree at an Ivy League university (see www.fulbright.co.uk/study-in-the-usa).

Studying environmental stewardship as part of the Fulbright Summer Institute hosted by Northern Arizona University at Flagstaff, Anna Dominey from London was part of a small group of students from the UK to join a six-week international study programme that would give students a taste of the US campus experience.

Dominey, who went to Lady Margaret School in Parson’s Green, holds offers from Oxford University and St Andrews to read theology. “I heard about Fulbright through the Social Mobility Foundation, a charity that supports students from lower-income backgrounds. I was eligible through receiving an education maintenance allowance and having a strong academic track record. I wanted to apply, because I have always wanted to explore somewhere far from home,” she says.

Dominey would consider applying to a US university, possibly to do a postgraduate degree. “From what I have seen, universities in the US have as much, if not more, to offer as UK institutions. There is so much to explore and experience, and the differences in culture add new dimensions to one’s area of study,” she says.

Thanks to the Bologna Process, which created a European higher education area, it is now easier for UK students to study as undergraduates in Europe, and three-year degrees are widely adopted as standard. Those taught in English, with high academic standards and competitive fees, are attracting keen interest.

Joint degrees including a language encourage students to spend a year of their degree being taught at a European institution. The University of Bristol, for example, offers several law degrees, including law with French or German, and a four-year Bachelors degree in law, one year of which is spent at a European university. Law students at the University of Glasgow spend a year out at a university in France, Germany, Italy, Portugal or Spain.

However, European university fees are roughly equivalent to, and in some cases higher than, tuition fees in the UK. With the pound at such a weak position against the euro, UK students are likely to suffer from higher fees and a higher cost of living in some parts of the Continent than they otherwise might. But other European countries have clung on to their tradition of offering free university education. In Sweden, Finland and a small number of German federal states, undergraduate degrees are free. UK students enjoy the same rights as other EU citizens to a free higher education in these countries and most of the degrees are taught in English. Finland’s University of Tampere and the Lund and Linköping universities in Sweden have an international reputation for health and social sciences, while the University of Bayreuth and the University of Kassel in Germany specialise in ecology and renewable energy. It is best to check with German institutions to see what fees are payable.

The downside of studying in Finland is that the winters are severe and the cost of monthly living expenses is estimated by the Scholarships for Development website at €700 (£610) a month. Outside the university campus, English is not widely understood and the language can be a hard one to learn.

You are unlikely to have this problem in Sweden, where fluency in English is almost universal. Over the past decade, the numbers of foreign students studying in Sweden has more than tripled, totalling 36,000 in 2008/09. Tuition fees have been introduced for all non-EU students, but there are no plans yet to extend charging.

The University of Lund is Sweden’s largest and best-known institution. Around 50 programmes are taught in English, ranging from international human rights law to sustainable urban design. Excellence is required in all areas of activity as Lund ranks as one of Europe’s leading institutions of higher education. There are about 35,000 undergraduates at Lund and the large student population contributes to an active cultural life, with a wide range of activities and entertainment available.

European universities offer generous contact time and, in some cases, career opportunities that would not be available in the UK. “At Grenoble, there are more taught hours. We attend class on Saturdays and the lessons are in three-hour blocks, not the 40-minute slots you find in the UK,” says Mark Thomas, associate dean of Grenoble Ecole de Management.

Academics, however, point to the UK’s reputation and long track record in delivering high-quality degrees. They say that it is not the number of taught hours that count but the quality of teaching and academic research.

The number of UK undergraduates studying in Europe is rising. There is no centralised data, but leading European universities are reporting average numbers of UK students at around 5 per cent. “We have 30 to 40 UK students each year and 75 different nationalities,” says Patrice Houdayer, vice-president of EM Lyon university.

The European Commission’s Erasmus programme provides funding to UK students to spend time at European universities as part of their degree studies. Developing a more international outlook is imperative for students in the 21st century and there is little doubt that EU-funded projects such as Erasmus, under which students spend part of their degree at a European institution, have encouraged better international understanding. “Eight per cent more UK students were heading to Europe in 2009/10 and a further increase is expected this year,” says David Hibler, the Erasmus programme manager at the British Council.

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