Join the continental drift: UKplc needs you

More than 12,000 degree students take part in study exchange programme as employers covet “multicultural learning agility” skills

Every week, business studies student Andrew Bell sits down in a Coburg cafe to chat in German with his language buddy – a fellow student who in turn is trying to boost his English.

Learning a language was one of the reasons the Bournemouth University student wanted to study abroad – he knows employers prize international experience. He’s one of more than 12,000 UK students studying for part of their degree at a European university this year.

Coburg is within driving distance of Berlin and Munich and close to the Czech border, and Bell is settled in Bavaria and doesn’t miss much from the UK apart from Southampton FC home games. “I know an international outlook will set me in good stead,” he says.

Teaching methods aren’t that different from his home university, “apart from the fact you don’t call your professors by their first names,” he says. “This is a fantastic opportunity –more students should go for it.”

It can pay to study abroad. For the first time, top-flight graduate employers have rated “multicultural learning agility” in the top 10 most sought-after skills when hiring new graduates, alongside old favourites such as communication and teamwork.

“Cultural dexterity is important,” says PwC, one of 12 leading graduate employers surveyed by the Association of Graduate Recruiters and the Council for Industry and Higher Education. “I think we’re starting to see a generation where they think of themselves as world citizens,” says Prudential, which also took part in the survey.

Given employers’ enthusiasm, students mulling their undergraduate options might do well to look at the rest of Europe. It’s often cheaper – in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, tuition is entirely subsidised. “The lower fees in the Netherlands are undoubtedly attractive, as is the perceived ‘edge’ of being able to offer something different to employers,” says Nancy Jenkins, Assistant Academic Dean at ACS Cobham International School, where students are beginning to investigate universities abroad.

Grappling with life in a new country accelerates personal and intellectual development, and graduates emerge with a precious international perspective so valued in the job market.

Thanks to the Bologna process, which aims to standardise university qualifications throughout Europe, a degree from the continent carries the same clout, in theory, as one from the UK. “Maybe 20 years ago European degrees might have been accepted with reluctance, but nowadays a degree is a degree, and valued because of the transferable skills as well as the content,” says Graham Foster, head of Guidance, Progression and Destinations at Harlow College in Essex.

On the downside, continental Europe offers a limited choice of undergraduate degrees taught in English, and students face language barriers and logistical headaches sorting out accommodation and dealing with red tape.

Some would-be students and their parents say they simply don’t know the market value of a degree from elsewhere in Europe, whatever the legislation. Some are put off by mass entry: many European state universities are obliged to admit anyone with an International Baccalaureate or equivalent, although a few, such as France’s Grandes Ecoles, are highly selective. “I think many countries in the Western world tend to think that their own national degrees are worth more than a degree from abroad,” says Herbert Grieshop, managing director at the Centre for International Cooperation at the Freie Universität in Berlin.

Although more UK students are applying to the rest of Europe, they still represent just a fraction of the overall student population. And if UK education – which draws large numbers of international students – is so internationally recognised, why go abroad?

German-born English language teacher Ute Zeller was delighted when her English son Christian Garrard chose to study at Groningen University in the Netherlands.

“Christian and I looked at a couple of universities in Britain offering international law degrees and were fairly disappointed by the lack of emphasis put on the ‘international’ part of the degree,” she says. “His degree will be recognised in Britain, and he will have the additional advantage of having lived abroad. It’s certainly widened his horizons.”

Studying is “just one of those experiences that you only truly appreciate the value of once you’ve done it”, says David Hibler, who heads the UK Erasmus study exchange programme. For the past 25 years the European Commission has allowed European students to sample study in another EU country as part of their UK degree and has waived fees for exchanges that last the full academic year. After a slew of reports in favour of internationally aware graduates, the Government has extended the fee waiver for next academic year but will cap fees at 40 per cent for the year 2014 to 2015.

For the past five years, more UK students have opted to use the Erasmus scheme – last year 12,800 UK students took part – but UK students are still more travel-shy than many of their European counterparts and the UK ranks 25th for the number of students using the scheme.

This is a wasted opportunity, says Di Henderson, head of sixth form at Marine Academy Plymouth. “Fees for European universities make them a really competitive option, even with added costs of travel.

Clearly, language and transport is a barrier, but the real barrier is a lack of awareness in schools about the possibilities.”

“Don’t knock our prospective students as lazy, linguistically incompetent or xenophobic,” warns Mark Ridolfo, international exchanges coordinator at Bournemouth University.

Some 25 years ago, he was one of the first students to study abroad with the Erasmus programme at a French university and knows firsthand what an enriching experience it can be. “There are often genuine obstacles that prevent students from going abroad to study. The more we can do to remove barriers and engender confidence, the more likely they are to embrace these life-changing opportunities.”

But contemplating the variety of potential courses and countries, any prospective student would be forgiven for feeling like a rabbit in the headlights. “Within the EU every degree is equal, at least in theory,” says Mark Huntingdon, managing director of A Star Future.

“Recognition of degrees is only really an issue for students of professional subjects such as medicine or engineering. In these cases it is worth checking with national bodies to ensure that the education is compatible with graduates’ career expectations upon returning to the UK,” he adds. He advises students to avoid private European universities if it’s unclear who is actually accrediting their degrees.

Currently Dutch universities top the list of favourites for UK students, offering about 200 undergraduate courses taught in English and more than a thousand Masters programmes.

Germany, judged recently by the British Council as most welcoming to foreign students, is another popular destination. Its universities have invested more in English-taught Masters than in Bachelor degrees, but they do welcome undergraduate exchange students.

But understanding the strengths and specialisms of universities takes time and research. Allow up to a year and half to research and apply to different universities, advises the Government’s Graduate Prospects service, which has seen increasing numbers seek online advice about study abroad. Almost a quarter of school leavers surveyed by Prospects this year said they planned to study overseas, with Europe the second most preferred destination after North America.

“If students are applying to European universities, we’d always advise them to visit, and more importantly observe some of the classes,” says Chris Green, high school assistant principal at ACS Hillingdon.

A number of European rankings are available – although many institutions mentioned in the top 100 by the Times Higher Education offer English-taught degrees at postgraduate level only and academics question the worth and methodology of the ratings.

In a recent survey by Universitas 21, an international grouping of 24 research universities and colleges, Sweden’s higher education system ranked highest out of a series of benchmarks, including resources, environment and research output, followed by Finland, Denmark and Switzerland, with the United States at the top of the list.

Informally, potential students can pick the brains of current exchange students and alumni on social networking sites and insider city guides, says Lizzie Fane, founder of thirdyearabroad.com. Try the European Youth Portal or ask questions in person at the Student World Fair scheduled for September and October this year, she advises.

Fluency in a foreign language certainly isn’t essential, she says – and the Erasmus scheme supports students eager to learn.

“UK Plc in the end depends on having graduates who are equipped for international roles,” says Hibler.

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