Erasmus did it, more than 500 years ago, leaving his native Holland to study in France and Italy. Hamlet did it, so Shakespeare tells us, forsaking Denmark for a trendy university in Germany. But now, finally, it's catching on worldwide. A Unesco report predicts that more than seven million students will be studying outside their home country by 2020.
Traditionally, the British have been stay-at-homes. In the 2009/10 academic year, the UK received 22,650 foreign students under the Erasmus exchange scheme, while sending abroad only 11,723. Now, however, the tide is beginning to turn. Accurate figures are hard to find, but there is little doubt that more and more British students are looking to foreign shores for both undergraduate and postgraduate study.
Contributing to this movement are the sudden rise in tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year, the increase in foreign courses taught in English, and the recession-influenced desire to study in a place where jobs are available. "Historically, UK students have studied overseas, principally in the US, but only in small numbers and from well-off backgrounds," says David Jobbins, who runs the international section of The Complete University Guide, an online listings service. "The new tuition fees have encouraged people to look at their options much more broadly. If you're going to have to pay for your university education at some point you might as well look at the complete market."
Mark Huntington, of the student advisory service astarfuture.co.uk, agrees. "There is a clear demonstrable trend towards going abroad. I've been seeing it for a couple of years," he says.
Language students, of course, have long been heading to France, Spain and Italy for their year abroad, but now North America, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland are becoming popular destinations for an entire degree – and the exodus is not only limited to them.
"Medical students who are forced out by the shortage of places here are going abroad," says Huntington. "Science, engineering and psychology courses seem to be particularly popular."
A global reach
There are now English language courses all around the world. Many are at big universities with international reputations, such as the Jagiellonian in Krakow, Poland.
For students looking for more familiar surroundings, Commonwealth countries offer university systems modelled on the British one – they have registries, for example. Some are surprisingly large. Although the University of Cape Town currently attracts just over 100 British students a year, it has a total student population of more than 24,000.
The Association of Commonwealth Universities administers reciprocal scholarship schemes between 110 countries and has a new endowment fund designed to enable poorer countries to host scholars. "It's all about encouraging people to consider different destinations," says the association's Natasha Lokhun. "This year we had our first awards and sent a British student to the University of Ibadan, in Nigeria, for example.
"If you look at the history of African higher education there were quite a few Britons and Americans studying there originally. It dropped off in the 1980s, but those universities are building back up now. The advantage, if you're studying linguistics or development studies, is that rather than sit in a library you can go and see it in the field."
Lokhun points to the University of Dar es Salaam or Makerere University in Uganda as popular destinations for international applicants. "South-east Asia is really keen to have foreign students come over."
Beat the British weather
Sensing the trend, distant universities are marketing themselves in Britain at education fairs and in schools. "Why accept rainy days and crammed UK halls when surf lessons between lectures, barbecues on the deck and hammocks in sun-soaked student apartments await you?" is how Adelaide is selling itself. The Australian academic year begins in February, giving British students until December to apply. Is it true? "I won't lie – there were some barbecues," says Natasha Parker, aged 22, who took her bachelors degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Adelaide and is now working in the city. "But we managed to fit in a bit of study here and there!"
Parker's father is from Hartlepool, but is based in Botswana. As a family they went to several education fairs before plumping for Australia over Great Britain for her education. The prospect of a good job at the end of it was a major factor. "Adelaide was very welcoming, a place you could see yourself living in, easy to settle down," she says. Her mother moved with her for a couple of years before she began her degree. Like most students in Australia, she worked part-time. "As a foreign student you are allowed to work up to 20 hours a week – it's quite easy to get part-time work."
Jemma Davies, of The Student World, which runs education fairs, says: "The big question we get asked is 'will I be able to get a job with my international degree'? You have to make sure it's accredited. But foreign courses often include a year with an employer, and that's the way students build up their contacts."
The number of foreign universities represented at these fairs has shot up, from 60 in March to nearly 90 scheduled to attend the next event in London next month. They're coming from all over the world, including China, Hong Kong, Scandinavia, New Zealand and, of course, North America, where the variety of scholarships on offer can significantly reduce the costs facing international students.
"You have to take the Sat test for America, but it shouldn't present a challenge to most sixth-formers," says Jobbins. "The application largely depends on the report from the school. The independent universities in the US offer needs-blind admission, which is potentially very interesting to students here who are financially challenged."
Work permit advantages
Some countries are even marketing their work permit schemes. For example, UK students can work in Australia for four years after graduating. In Canada it's three years. The University of British Columbia has seen a 33 per cent rise in the number of UK students in the past year.
Foreign universities relish British students for obvious reasons. "These courses require a high standard of English language and British students tick that box," Davies says. "And the feedback we get is that they also have a good work ethic."
Just as well, since European universities in particular have a reputation for letting students sink or swim in their first year, when they will typically face at least two sets of exams. "They can be ruthless," Jobbins says. "And the conditions under which people study can be very different, with enormous attendance at lectures, maybe 400 to 500 people in a lecture theatre. People may prefer a more intimate environment."
Huntington agrees that the student experience is important, and not always measured by league tables. "Sometimes you find abroad that a lot of students live at home," he says. "I always recommend students go to a city or a place that sustains a reasonable student life. That's partly the reason why Dublin and the Dutch cities are attractive – they have that."
Indeed, the Netherlands continues to gain popularity, with thousands of English-language courses now on offer at a tuition cost of about £1,500 a year. There are more than 80,000 foreign students at Dutch universities and colleges, around a tenth of the total, so an international outlook is guaranteed.
Amsterdam, Leiden, Utrecht, Erasmus and Rotterdam, among others, score highly in the university rankings. Groningen and Maastricht seem to be particularly popular among British students. The number applying to Maastricht for this coming year is 819, up from 469 last year.
What's the attraction, other than the money you save? The university's Dunja Bajic points to small tutorial groups in which research skills and personal attention are emphasised, and the international atmosphere (Maastricht is a magnet for Germans in particular).
Dutch colleges, like those in the Republic of Ireland, also have the advantage of being within easy travelling time from the UK. The same applies to Denmark, where tuition is free, but living expenses are higher. Norway and Sweden are also waking up to the British market.
While China has been fairly impenetrable in the past (with the exception of Hong Kong), it is gradually opening up. Six British students, for example, are currently taking their Masters at the Ningbo campus of Nottingham University, which has also opened a campus in Kuala Lumpur.
Although Nottingham was a pioneer of foreign campuses, the UK's universities have been forming partnerships with other institutions for many years. Kent, which calls itself "Britain's European university", has centres in Paris and Brussels and offers dual UK and European qualifications with Sciences Po in Lille, Siena in Italy and Jagiellonian in Poland.
Business and management
Business courses are becoming more international in outlook. Dave Richardson has seen tangible benefits from his year in Toronto, part of a four-year business degree with Lancaster University Management School. "The fantastic friendships and networking opportunities that accompany the degree have made for some first-class free holidays abroad," he says. He was tipped off about his present job with Lloyds Banking Group by a fellow student.
The SP Jain School of Global Management has a global bachelors degree in business administration that is studied in Singapore (the host country), Dubai and Sydney. Meanwhile, Bocconi University in Milan has just launched a world Bachelors degree in business run jointly with the University of Southern California and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Students spend a year in each location and a final one wherever they choose.
Aside from the opportunity to travel, what are the benefits of foreign study? "The social side is a huge plus," says Huntington. "People go to the Netherlands not being able to speak a word of Dutch. Six months later they're showing it off. The mindset changes."
Then there's employability. "You're experiencing a foreign culture and living more independently than if in a UK city," Jobbins says. "It demonstrates to employers that you have the get up and go, literally, to take what could be regarded a considerable risk."
Studying abroad is not for the meek, and planning is vital. Do your research early, perhaps 18 months ahead of your first term. Make sure the degree is accredited and recognised by employers at home and abroad. Visit the university of your choice, if possible.
Remember that even if you have a scholarship earned with your sporting achievements you still have to pass academic exams. Apply significantly earlier than you would for a British university. Secure your funding, since the British student loan scheme does not apply once you leave the country, and foreign fees must be paid in advance. Finally, be prepared to have your attitudes challenged. And welcome to the world.