Doing a degree abroad is no longer an impossible dream. If the thought of studying in a warm climate, exotic surroundings or an unfamiliar culture appeals to you, opportunities now exist to study in almost every corner of the world, and there's plenty of advice readily available to help you find the right course for you.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), around 22,000 UK students went abroad to study in 2011 – just 1.7 per cent of the student population, but numbers are growing fast. In 2012, a survey of 500 school leavers and undergraduates by education consultancy Prospect found 24 per cent were planning to study abroad.
The increase in tuition fees at UK universities to £9,000 a year has meant that more British students are looking at the economics of attending universities overseas. Comparisons are startling: the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, which is rated 28th in the QS University World rankings, has fees of £640 a year, while the Technical University of Munich (ranked 54th) is £1,000 and Riga Technical University in Latvia charges £1,205. You can even study for free in Scandinavia, Austria and much of Germany.
Dutch universities are actively recruiting UK students, attracting them with 200 undergraduate courses available in English. Such undergraduate courses at Maastricht University include business, medicine, arts and culture and law, and there is a team of teachers and UK students who look after British applicants from their initial enquiry onwards.
But the US is the most popular destination, with 9,000 UK undergraduates and postgraduates studying there in 2012. According to HSBC, the cost is around £20,000 a year on average. Fees at top universities, including Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Princeton can be around £40,000 per annum, but these also offer the most generous financial aid. They will offer a place regardless of your ability to pay, then only charge what they think you can reasonably afford based on your family income. US universities also offer sports scholarships, which can cut fees by as much as 75 per cent.
British colleges have noted the popularity of American institutions and are starting to offer pupils more information on the option of a US university education. This has partly been spurred on by the latest QS World University Rankings, which placed MIT as the best university in the world, with Cambridge a runner-up. Brighton College in Sussex recently appointed a member of staff to deal with American University applications, while nine pupils from King's College, Wimbledon started at US universities in September.
Another up-and-coming option for university candidates is Asia, says Danny Byrne, editor of TopUniversities.com. "Institutions such as Hong Kong University and the National University of Singapore offer world-class degrees taught in English. Both make the global top 40 in the QS World University Rankings – higher than most of the UK Russell Group Universities.
"There are also foreign branch campuses of UK and US universities springing up at a rapid rate across Asia. They combine the benefits of a top US or UK degree with studying in a different culture and often at a reduced cost, which is hugely attractive to candidates wanting to stand out in a saturated graduate job market."
Cost is a very important factor in choosing your university, but another key consideration is whether it will lead you to employment and the career of your choice.
That said, there's no doubt that the experiences gained in studying abroad are valuable. Around 60 per cent of the country's top employers indicate that international study enhances employability, according to research from the Council for Industry and Higher Education. A third of employers said they would consider an overseas degree on a par with one from the UK.
Matthew Parker, from the student recruitment team at KPMG, says the company welcomes applications from students regardless of their degree subject or the country where they have completed their studies. "A candidate who has experienced working or studying overseas brings a diversity of experience and demonstrates a certain level of resilience, which is always attractive to an employer."
This is good news when you apply to international companies, but Jemma Davies, organiser of The Student World Fair, warns that if you're approaching organisations that only operate in the UK, you must make sure that your CV is comparable to students who have attended UK universities. "See that your CV has details about your studies, how your degree is accredited and how it compares to a UK degree. If you're considering professional courses such as law, accountancy or medicine, check with the university when you apply that the qualification is transferable."
The 2012 QS World University Rankings measure employer reputation as a criterion, and will give you a good idea of which universities are highly considered by recruiters.
You should think carefully about the subject that you want to study, particularly if it's unusual, and check out the universities who offer appropriate programmes. For example, Skema Business School in Nice offers a degree in environmental and marine sciences and Professor Yan Grasselli, head of the department, points out the wide range of opportunities in the environmental field. "Almost all large companies have a corporate social responsibility policy and focus on sustainable development services."
Aviation management and aeronautical science are also unusual degrees offered by Skema, with the option of doing a year in the US or Australia. Job opportunities in this field include management in an airport or airline company, or working for international groups such as Boeing or Aerobus. As an interesting addition to their CV, students taking these degrees also receive full pilot training.
The British have never been particularly renowned for their skills in foreign languages, and as English is the international language of business there might seem to be little incentive to branch out. But there's no doubt that making an effort to speak the local language when doing business helps to oil the wheels. It probably comes as a relief that all universities who hope to attract students from the UK present their programmes in English, although many offer language classes for their international students. In Denmark, for example, students are eligible for free language classes for three years.
Since the number of British A-level language students has fallen again this year, having a foreign language can put you ahead in an increasingly competitive market where there are 70 graduates for every available job.
Australia has many attractions as a place to study – sunshine, a laid-back lifestyle and, of course, the language, with no swotting over foreign grammar required. Western Australia attracted six per cent more UK students last year – unsurprisingly when Perth is ranked among the top 10 most liveable cities and 25th in best student cities globally. UK students can work up to 40 hours a fortnight at the national average earnings rate of AUS$19.70 (£11.59) an hour, and graduates can gain work experience in Australia with a post-study work visa.
Whether you're considering Perth, Riga or Shanghai, Jennifer Akiga, who's doing an engineering degree at Skema, strongly recommends studying abroad. "You'll form an international network – I can go to any country in Europe and know that I have friends there. When you live abroad you understand the culture and always carry the knowledge with you. My mum says that travel is the best education." And mums, of course, always know best.
Provides information about studying abroad. Visit The Student World Fair and meet over 50 universities from all over the world in Manchester, 12 October, and London, 13 October.
Answers your questions about studying in US or China.
All of the QS university rankings at your fingertips.
Information about study, internships and volunteering abroad.
Provides information about scholarships to study in the US.
Gives you the lowdown on studying in Western Australia.
Case study: 'I'll be able to graduate without a penny of debt'
"It's wonderful that I'll be able to graduate without a penny of debt, and hopefully also have savings from my summer jobs," says James Watkins, who has just finished his freshman year at Harvard.
Despite offers from five UK universities, including Cambridge, when Harvard accepted him it was a no-brainer. "The Harvard name stands out in the job market – and I liked the breadth of academic study in the US. Reading economics at Cambridge is a very restrictive programme, but here I'm doing eight subjects of my choice each year, including French psychology and philosophy, which is a great preparation for life."
The financial side of studying came as a welcome surprise. "Harvard offers scholarships based on your needs and parents' income. Last year, I paid £6,000 all-in, but from now on tuition, accommodation, food and even flights home will all be provided through their generous bursary system because my parents are now retired."
"The Harvard network is invaluable – I have friends struggling to find part-time jobs, but I'm working for 10 weeks for a City investment company in a job only offered to Harvard students."
His advice to anyone planning to apply to US universities? "Academic qualifications are important, but they're looking for interesting people – it's what you did at weekends that matters. I wrote my application about my charity cycle ride from Land's End to John o' Groats, and I think that helped."
Case study: 'China: It's a huge distance and everything is different'
A year ago, Eimear Power flew to China to begin a degree in international business at Dongbei University in the city of Dalian.
"Graduate job prospects in the UK are dismal," she says "I've friends with degrees working in supermarkets. China is the largest growing economy and I decided that studying there would open up lots of career possibilities. Classes are in English, but international students get free classes in Mandarin."
The application process was straightforward, the fees – around £3,000 a year – reasonable and the living costs, at £70 a week, very cheap. Eimear was met at the airport by university staff, taken to her accommodation and shown around the city.
"But it's not all easy," she warns. "It's a huge distance and everything is very different. You get homesick and have to adjust and make friends quickly or you'll be lonely. Chinese students, though they have a more traditional outlook, love Western culture and make us feel welcome."
Classes are restricted to 40 students – compared to 200 at some lectures at the University of Ulster, where Eimear had done a business course – and the job prospects are excellent for Westerners who speak some Mandarin. "You also get unique experiences," she says. "We spent a weekend in a village teaching local children English. Their written English from school is excellent, but we had to encourage them to speak it as they didn't know the pronunciation."