Considering Europe: Students in continental shift

Increasing numbers of UK learners are contemplating studying at a European university

Until recently, a UK student on a European campus could bank on modest celebrity status. They were a rare breed, and sightings at the library, lecture hall or bar caused quite a stir. But that's all changing. Although full-time UK students are still fairly unusual at universities throughout Europe, more and more are heading beyond the Channel for their degree.

Back in 2009, the OECD found that about 22,000 UK students were choosing to study overseas each year – just 1.7 per cent of the UK student population. France, Germany and Denmark attracted about 1,000 each.

But these numbers are growing fast. A survey of 500 school leavers and undergraduates carried out by Prospects in March found that around 24 per cent were planning to study abroad and that 73 per cent were considering it. Only 4 per cent completely ruled international study out.

Further research from the QS World University rankings, published last week, shows that the top 100 universities worldwide are accepting, on average, nearly 10 per cent more international students this year than they did in 2011, marking the biggest single-year increase in the rankings' nine-year history. "The unprecedented acceleration in international recruitment reflects an escalating global battle for talent," notes Ben Sowter, QS head of research. "120,000 more international students were reported by the top 500 universities this year, suggesting that the global total may now exceed 4 million."

It isn't hard to see why UK students' interest in continental education has been piqued. Following a dismally wet summer, the allure of sunshine can't be ignored. But there are other, more long-term benefits – including cultural awareness, the opportunity to learn a language, quality education, increased cultural awareness and, often, lower fees.

According to Jemma Davies, who organises the Student World Fair where UK students can meet representatives from international universities, applicants can expect a warm welcome too. "UK students are a great asset to international universities, with thousands of degrees taught in English," she says. "UK students stand out in the classroom by contributing to lessons and encouraging other students to participate too."

This classroom experience may not be what UK students are used to, however. At the University of Amsterdam, for example, students can design their own individual study programme. At Maastricht, there is a focus on problem-based learning.

"We encourage students to spend time studying abroad because it's good for developing their understanding of the subject and a different academic dimension," says David Hibler, the British Council's programme manager of Erasmus, a scheme that enables students to spend time studying overseas. "Sometimes it's also important for reasons directly relevant to their subject – linguists, for example."

However, UK students also need to research the quality of education on offer overseas. The QS rankings are a good place to start, giving an indication of an institution's reputation and reach. But it's important to bear in mind that these league tables can't give the full picture. Some institutions may have a reputation for excellence in a specific field, for example – such as natural sciences and engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and medicine at the University of Milan. As Will Archer, chief executive of the education research consultancy i-graduate, notes: "You've got to do your research to understand the nature of study at the university and country you're interested in, their academic specialisms, and their reputation."

Another obvious advantage of studying at a European university is the opportunity to learn a language. While an increasing number of English-taught courses are available throughout Europe, outgoing students do well to gain at least a basic understanding of the local tongue. Just living abroad will help, but many European universities also offer language classes for their international students. In Denmark, for example, students are eligible for free language lessons for three years after arriving in the country. Given that the numbers of British teenagers learning languages at A-level fell again in this year, language skills are becoming increasingly scarce among young job-seekers. In a climate where there are as many of 70 graduates for every available job, they could put you ahead of the game.

This employability can be a key motivating factor for outward-bound students. "A period of international study is good for personal development and the development of attributes that are valued by employers," says Hibler. Business chiefs back up this assertion. According to a poll published by ICM in December 2011, three in four fear that the UK will be left behind unless young people learn to think more globally.

"There are many advantages to studying your degree abroad," says Davies. "You'll stand out on the job market and you'll gain an international perspective which employers really value."

Archer agrees: "International experience undoubtedly enhances employability. Employers value it, typically, above domestic experiences. I think it makes you interesting."

The universities and science minister David Willetts is another supporter of international study – and he's investing in students that are open to the idea. In May, he announced a substantial fees discount to encourage undergraduates to study abroad for part of their degree on schemes such as Erasmus. Consequently, from the academic year 2014-15, those that spend two or more terms at an overseas university within a UK-based degree course will pay no more than 15 per cent of the year's fees at their UK institution.

However, even with this new discount in mind, it may still work out considerably cheaper for UK students to take their entire degree elsewhere in Europe. Living costs may be significantly lower for a start. Poland, for example, is one of the cheapest places to live in the EU, making student budgeting that bit easier. Then there are the costs levied by the universities. Comparing UK university fees with those of many European universities, Davies says: "There are financial advantages, with free or lower tuition in most countries." In Scandinavia, Austria, Greece and many universities in Hungary and Slovenia, university education is free to EU nationals. In Iceland and Luxembourg there's a small registration fee. In other parts of Europe, fees are far lower than the UK's maximum £9,000-a-year whack. In the Netherlands, they are around £1,500 a year. In Germany, they're around £800 a year.

There's a key difference, however. "You will have to stump up the cash first, unlike here in the UK where you have a student loan," Davies explains. But UK students may be eligible for financial assistance from the country they're studying in, which could include grants and bursaries. "If you plan ahead, there are many scholarships available," notes Davies.

Students that choose to head to nations new often talk of the international experience they benefit from – the rich mix of backgrounds and experiences that not only enlivens classroom debate, but which also hands them an international contacts book to die for by the time they graduate. Those seeking the limelight, however, should get in quick, before British students become commonplace.

"It was a gamble, and the best decision of my life"

Ritwik Swain, 20, from St Albans, is a 2nd year psychology student at the University of Groningen.

"I initially applied to study psychology at Warwick, but I didn't meet my conditional offer. I went into panic mode. I got an offer from another UK university through Clearing, but it didn't grab me, so I went to my school for advice. My headmaster said he'd read that Maastricht University offers English-language courses and an excellent education at a fraction of the cost of UK universities. It seemed like a brilliant option.

As it happened, Maastricht didn't teach psychology, but I thought there might be somewhere in the Netherlands that did. That's how I found my course in Groningen.

This was late August and the Groningen term started in September. Lo and behold, they had spare places and, after a little admin, I was accepted. Within two weeks, I went from not considering the Netherlands to packing my bags.

It was a rushed decision and a gamble, but now I can say that studying in the Netherlands was the best decision of my life.

Groningen offers a very international community. It's a melting pot of people in one little-known place. I'm learning about Europe, I'm learning a different culture, and I'm learning both German and Dutch. I'm getting very involved in the local community too, and I'm the only international student on the University Council.

I can see myself doing a Masters here and even living here in future. Groningen consistently gets voted the top student city in the Netherlands – it's a very happy place, and a bit alternative. I like that. I prefer not follow the mainstream."

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