Australian universities are a world apart in attitudes

Embrace the less formal, but still rigorous, approach of an Antipodean education

Australian universities are recognised as world leaders in subjects such as business, economics, sciences, medicine, geology, physical geography, social work, and sports science. Regional universities, too, offer unique opportunities. James Cook University in Queensland is world-famous for marine biology. With the Great Barrier Reef on the doorstep and with two of the world's top five subject specialists on the faculty, this is the place to study marine eco-systems and conservation. The University of Tasmania enjoys a similar reputation for bio-diversity. Over a third of the country is national park and world heritage wilderness area.

New Zealand's universities punch above their weight in world league tables, attracting students from across the Pacific Rim, the USA and Northern Europe, particularly Scandinavia and Germany. Family connections, plus the allure of rugged scenery made famous by films such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, has brought many UK students in search of a unique experience.

New Zealand's North and South islands contain some of the world's most spectacular scenery, boasting some incredible coastline, rivers, forests, lakes and snow-capped mountains that offer lovers of the great outdoors plenty of kayaking, skiing and snowboarding. Student clubs and student discounts cover all activities and destinations.

Eight universities serve a population of 4.2 million, but many are world leaders in environmental studies, agriculture, disaster relief, veterinary science, medicine and digital media and film. Richard Taylor's world-famous film studio, Weta Workshop, is based in Wellington, a major attraction for film and animation degree students.

The University of Otago in Dunedin, and the University of Canterbury in Christchurch are based in the South Island. The North Island is host to the University of Auckland, Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) and Massey University.

Cultural differences

The reputation of Australia's top universities co-exists with what many international students describe as a "chilled way of life". The countryside or beach is never far away and students in both Australia and New Zealand are heavily into outdoor activities, such as mountain biking, surfing, diving, kite surfing and beach barbecues.

The campus experience is shaped by the high calibre of teaching and the accessibility and approachability of academic staff. Although not universal, smaller class sizes and increased contact time add to the impression that students receive good value for money. "Australia has an informal teaching culture," says Sarah Nash, director of student advice and applications service Study Options. "UK students report that academics are very accessible and that standards are rigorous. Going to one of Australia's top-ranked universities is absolutely like going to a Russell group university in the UK. Australian and New Zealand universities have a more than respectable showing on international league tables."

Education system

Degrees are much more flexible than in the UK where students decide on a major and stick to it. Universities in Australia and New Zealand are much more like the US where a wide range of options is studied in the first year before narrowing down your choices later on. In Bachelors arts degrees, students can choose subjects from other faculties and it is not at all unusual for them to change their major half way through the programme. Science degrees allow students to explore the other scientific branches as part of an interdisciplinary approach.

The Australian university application process is open and inclusive. Whereas the university admissions and clearing body Ucas only permits students to hold two offers, UK students, when applying to Australian universities, can proceed with as many as five offers, including two from the UK.

The two semester Australian academic year runs from February to November. Semester one runs from February to June. Semester two runs from July to November. Two months summer break enables students to – for example – travel home or celebrate Christmas with a barbecue on Bondi Beach or a backpacking tour of South East Asia. The academic year in New Zealand also runs to the same schedule.

Course fees and cost of living

Because of the high tuition fees, many young Australians study at their local university while living at home. The lack of demand for halls of residence has seen universities decrease their stock. As a result, many overseas students have little option but to rent from the private sector, where rates are high. In Perth, it costs AU$500 (approx £325) a week for a three-bed house which students can share. In Bondi Beach two students sharing a private rented room pay AU$205 (£130) a week each. While a campus studio bedroom costs AU$192 (£124) a week at the University of Sydney. Expect to pay AU$20 (£13) for a pizza or burger at a local restaurant. A bottle of beer in a student bar would cost around AU$7 (£4), around the same as a jar of Vegemite.

The cost of living is a lot less in New Zealand, and the currency, which is currently trading at just under NZ$2 to the pound, remains a strong incentive for British students who want to get more for their money. There's little variation in course fees; most undergraduate degrees will cost from NZ$20,000-NZ$26,000 (approx £10,100-£13,200).

However, imported manufactured goods are expensive and food tends to be seasonal. Rents vary according to whether students are living in private rented sector or in university halls There is a good supply of both. At University of Otago in Dunedin, for example, a room in a student flat share costs as little as NZ$105 (£53) depending on the number of people sharing. A room in student halls, fully catered, will cost up to NZ$300 (£152) a week.

"Work, work, work, then surf, surf, surf"

Elise Jackson, 21, is in the fourth year of a Masters in economic and social history at the University of Edinburgh. She recently returned from a year abroad at the University of Sydney, and fell in love with the lifestyle.

"Sydney is an amazing place. I made some great friends and in the long vacation I travelled to Bali and Lombok with a Danish girl I met on the course. Campus life is very chilled compared to the UK and a lot of the students surf. But the Aussies also work very hard. It's work, work, work and then surf, surf, surf!"

As she's from Newcastle, Jackson received a £4,500 student loan from the UK government to cover the cost of her year in Australia. "The high cost of living meant my money didn't go far. I lived with my aunt and uncle in Sydney until I started sharing a flat with friends. And I got a job managing a gourmet burger bar, which paid AU$25 an hour plus tips."

The experience has helped fuel Jackson's ambition to forge an international business career. "Studying abroad gave me independence and confidence – I could move on my own to London when I returned to the UK for an internship. Having the overseas experience was vital in my application to the start-up company where I've been working this summer."