Masters in Europe? A short hop to academic success

Studying for a Masters on the Continent costs a fraction of what you'd pay in the UK and will give you a competitive edge

Standing room only at lectures; red tape; library queues... British postgraduate Katie Ritson acknowledges the downsides – albeit minor ones – of an education on the Continent. "Yes, some lectures were really crowded – sometimes hundreds of us squeezing in," she says. "And the paperwork drove me mad. But the contact time with lecturers was really good. You are much less 'managed', but you don't fall through the net. You get very good feedback." And her Masters in comparative literature at Munich's Ludwig Maximilian University cost nothing – compared with the several thousand pounds she would have paid in the UK.

Continental Europe still offers heavily subsidised higher education. And in some countries, such as Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Austria and much of Germany, it's free. Other popular destinations, such as the Netherlands and France, offer postgraduate qualifications at a fraction of the price now charged in Britain.

Ritson, a language graduate from Cambridge University, was put off postgraduate study in the UK by the thought of accruing more debt. She returned to Munich, where she'd spent time as an undergraduate, and after a few years working there she embarked upon a Masters in 2007. Her first child was born during her first semester (courses are usually split into two terms), but flexible deadlines meant she could slow the pace of study to look after her baby.

"I never stopped studying – but I could choose when I completed parts of the course. This flexible approach is a massive advantage compared with the UK." She's now completing a PhD at the same university while working part-time at a research institute.

Worldwide, students are crossing borders as never before – some 4.1 million are estimated to be studying outside their own country according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. But British postgraduates aren't great travellers – and given the choice they still opt for English-speaking destinations such as the United States and Australia. But a proliferation of English-taught Masters is beginning to lure more UK scholars across the channel.

European education is in the process of being integrated, in line with the Bologna Declaration signed in 1999; so in theory a qualification from any European university will be worth the same in any country. "With a pan-European system of quality assurance procedures, postgraduate students will have confidence knowing that wherever their degree is finally from, it meets the exacting standards agreed by more than 40 countries and recognised the world over," says Simeon Underwood, an adviser on Bologna at the London School of Economics.

None of this will prevent travelling scholars from having "a bit of a meltdown" before arriving, says Daniel Garner, who studied for a Masters in advanced computer science in Berlin as part of the European Union's Erasmus exchange programme. "Once I set foot in the country, everything became clear," he adds. "Every step of the way there were helpful people around. It's scary, but push through it and the satisfaction a month later will be unbelievable."

However, the numbers of UK postgraduates studying for Masters in Europe remains tiny – around 2,000 this year and creeping up slowly according to figures from the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (Hecsu). "Yet savvy graduates thinking about broadening their horizons will do well in a globalised jobs market," says Charlie Ball, deputy head of research at Hecsu.

There are numerous studies that show ho w highly employers value cultural dexterity and a global perspective among the graduates they hire. A dozen leading graduate recruiters questioned by the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) put an ability to work with people from a range of backgrounds and countries at the head of their top 10 wish-list for graduate competencies, followed closely by an ability to conduct business with clients from different cultures.

Often a decision on where and what to study can come down to "gut feeling", says Ball. "Most of the universities which are ranked globally are quality institutions. Generally the difference between them is so small that other factors should count. Do you want to live there? Does it offer the right course?" he says.

The path to Dutch universities, with their proximity and proliferation of English-taught courses, is now relatively well trodden and institutions there are geared up to welcoming "internationals", Brits among them. Masters in the Netherlands cost around €1,800 and subjects favoured by UK students have an obvious international slant – international business or relations, says the University of Groningen. Germany eases the process with its German Academic Exchange Service, which promotes and helps fund international students on its 4,700-odd postgraduate courses. Big city universities in places like Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Freiburg, Tübingen and Heidelberg all have international offices specifically to deal with foreign students. "I found it really easy to mix in with the German students, because I had the language," says Ritson.

"But international students tend to seek each other out and form a supportive community. They're all going through the same thing, and their network is important," she adds.

Sweden, with its many English speakers, welcomes internationals; half of all Masters students at the renowned Lund University come from abroad, and this year around 100 UK postgraduates have been admitted to Masters programmes there – of which 100 are taught in English. A medieval university town, Lund rates highly for the quality of its research and graduate employability, and offers small class sizes.

Equally popular is Sweden's Uppsala University, which scores highly in university rankings for its research. Other Nordic universities – such as Copenhagen, Aarhus and Helsinki – feature in the top 100 ranked universities according to the QS World University rankings published by topuniversities.com.

No information has been collated centrally about how competitive it is to gain entry to Masters programmes. Lund University offers places on the strength of an application alone, without interview, whereas many will invite prospective candidates to at least a group interview. Popular subjects – economics, international relations, law and management – enjoy stiff competition for places.

To get a feel for the quality of the Masters on offer, start with university websites, says topuniversities.com, but also look at academic staff, their research and publications. "Good graduate programmes will offer you access to their alumni," says the site. Many university rankings do offer some transparency as they tend to be divided into criteria such as research quality, teaching ratios and employability. "But in Germany there's less of a hierarchy than in the UK," says Ritson. "All the big city unis are well respected."

If you can, visit the institution in person, advises Lizzie Fane, founder of thirdyearabroad.com. "I'd also recommend students to read insider city guides, or 'Mole Diaries', and get advice from the European Youth Portal or in person at Student World Fair events or the Language Show Live [19-21 October, Olympia, London]".

Another way of assessing strengths of European Universities is to look at the European Commission's Erasmus Mundus programme, which offers funded "composite" Masters at a maximum of three different EU institutions. "This is an opportunity not fully tapped by UK graduates," says David Hibler, Erasmus programme manager at the British Council: only about 30 UK postgraduates tend to win funding for this kind of Masters each year. "Erasmus Mundus highlights a university's strengths in a particular area – they are high-quality programmes."

Many other study funds and scholarships are available and administered both by universities and by bodies such as the Rotary Foundation, Unesco and the International Institute of Education, and individual universities can advise on these. While many funds are reserved for students from outside Europe, it still pays to dig around; Study Portal (mastersportal.eu) estimates that €16bn of funding is available for international students. For individual country guides, the UK Government's Prospects website (prospects.ac.uk) gives details of European countries' higher education structures and application procedures.

Britain's traditional lack of enthusiasm for foreign languages probably explains graduates' unwillingness to look overseas – and although English language-taught courses make the experience easier, life abroad runs more smoothly with a little language grounding, Fane advises. Immersive courses offered by the likes of Rosetta Stone are useful, and universities themselves will offer language facilities and courses when students arrive.

And as many students who have successfully completed Masters courses abroad would happily tell you: beware what a life-changing experience it can be. "Be prepared for something to happen that will make you want to stay," says Ball.

'It's good to get a bit of help settling in'

Emmie Collinge, 24, a graduate from Newcastle University, has just begun an English-taught postgraduate diploma in Dutch and translation at the Hogeschool Gent, Belgium. She has previously studied and worked abroad in Germany and Sweden.

"I've always felt more comfortable with the lifestyle abroad – there seems to be less pressure than there is in the UK.

Until you get a proper social life going, it can be really tough – I use Skype a lot. I've joined a running and cycling club and I'm sharing with students so it's quite sociable – I found the flat through the university.

My course would cost about £7,000 in the UK and it's more exciting to come abroad. I knew the standards would be as good, if not better. I'm pleased I'm going to have something different so I'll stand out.

I want to do subtitles in films. The work is intense; I didn't feel academically prepared by my degree. It's good if someone can come and help you settle in, open a bank account and do the admin. Gent is a beautiful city – if you're under 26, you can travel anywhere in Belgium for €5."

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