A grand tour for the modern age

Stephen Hoare looks at the incentives for studying at European universities

Ask any student which universities combine affordable living with an exciting lifestyle and they might name places such as Cardiff or Manchester. But the British Council says better deals can be found much further south – in Europe.

The universities of Granada and Valencia in Spain top the council’s league table of destinations for UK Erasmus students. In Valencia, a meal at a cheap restaurant costs €10.14, a monthly travel pass costs €38.32 and a student apartment outside the city centre can be found for as little as €255.56 a month.

Established to encourage students to spend from a semester to a year at university in another EU country, Erasmus is Europe’s biggest provider of bursaries for overseas study. Last year, around 13,000 UK students, mostly undergraduates, took advantage of an Erasmus grant. “Two thirds of the mobility is to Spain, France, and Germany, which corresponds to the commonest languages studied at university level,” says David Hibler, Erasmus programme manager at the British Council.

A typical Erasmus grant of €375 a month contributes to accommodation and living costs while a student is living abroad. The grant is paid in three tranches and is not means tested.

The combination of an Erasmus grant, student loan and the fact no tuition fees are payable, means students can complete their time in Europe without going into debt. Students who spend a year on Erasmus have the added advantage that their home university tuition fee is waived as well – a saving now worth up to £9,000.

Helen Scott took a year out of her BSc in neuroscience with German to work in a research laboratory at the University of Cologne. “Over the year Erasmus paid me almost £4,000. Before starting my year abroad, I travelled to Cologne to find a flatshare. Sharing with three other people cost me €350 a month, which my parents paid by standing order.

Throughout the year, I earned €60 a week teaching English to a family for four hours a week. That helped me pay for the things I needed like my travel pass (€200 per semester) and food. I received the last instalment of my Erasmus money when I got back to England and that paid for my summer spends,” says Scott who reckons that she broke even.

The cost of living varies across Europe. The cheapest costs are found in southern and eastern Europe, where the British Council is offering a one-off supplementary grant of €400 for students heading to less visited countries, such as Croatia, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Poland and Romania.

From Southampton Solent University, Piers d’Orgée spent a semester at the Hogeschool in Utrecht and another at the Danish School of Journalism in Aarhus as part of his BA in journalism. “Denmark is a very expensive place to live. The cost of a tin of baked beans is roughly £1.50 and for a pint of beer, it’s £5,” says d’Orgée.

While Erasmus is only designed for up to a year abroad, British students are increasingly studying full-time at European universities. Degrees taught in English and low fees are only part of the attraction. Many offer bursaries or government aid that UK students can apply for. Grenoble Graduate School of Management has scholarships for cultural diversity, an outstanding professional woman award and an early bird grant for the first students to apply.

With campuses in Paris and Lille, IESEG, one of the top French grandes écoles, attracts UK students to its business courses. Students can get help with the cost of accommodation, but must register with the Caisses d’Allocations Familiales (CAF), which administers financial aid for housing, and have a valid resident’s permit. Like many French universities, IESEG offers merit based scholarships. “France can be a great alternative for English students. The school provides free French classes to help students adapt to the environment,” says IESEG dean Jean-Philippe Ammeux. The costs of living are generally lower than in UK.

Meanwhile, the reasonable living costs and low tuition fees of the Netherlands can be worth as much as a scholarship. In Rotterdam a student can find an unfurnished room for about €350 per month. Tuition fees are kept at a reasonable level by the government, consolidating it at a mere €1,830 from 2013.

Applications to European universities are usually direct and via the university’s website, so students should take the opportunity to ask about any grants or bursaries they might be eligible for at the earliest possible stage.

In Germany, Berlin’s Humboldt Universität advises students seeking scholarships to accompany their application with references, a detailed CV and a letter of motivation. Berlin offers a begrüssungsgeld – a €100 “hello” to every new student starting in the city to help see them through their first few days.