Expand your horizons by going to university abroad

International study can be a life-changing experience, just make sure you know what you are letting yourself in for

The university experience in the UK has a lot to recommend it to home students: a rich history, a solid worldwide academic reputation, and the inimitable social life offered by British institutions. However, a growing number of students are heading overseas to study and finding that there's also much to love about the international university experience.

The university experience in the UK has a lot to recommend it to home students: a rich history, a solid worldwide academic reputation, and the inimitable social life offered by British institutions. However, a growing number of students are heading overseas to study and finding that there's also much to love about the international university experience.

Perhaps the biggest draw is cost, as in many European countries (including Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) UK students pay no fees at all. Costs in France or Germany are a few hundred pounds, and even the slightly higher £1,500 charged by Dutch institutions is comparatively low. Living costs vary, but these are often lower than at home as well, making foreign study a potentially soothing balm for tormented bank balances at home.

As the worth of a degree tends (happily) not to be measured by how much it cost, there are also personal and professional benefits to overseas study that can help students once they graduate. According to Jemma Davies, organiser of the Student World Fair: "Studying outside of the UK will see students having to adapt to a new environment, new teaching methods and to develop their interpersonal skills." All of which will benefit them once they graduate.

Learning to adapt in this way gives people confidence in their own abilities, according to Beatrice Merrick, director of services and research at the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA). "You have to deal with situations outside of your own experience. Even students who have travelled a lot – perhaps with their families – very often find that when they're the one in the driving seat everything is a major achievement, from getting a bank account to finding somewhere to live."

Dealing with these practicalities often depends on learning new language skills, which will naturally serve students well in the international job market – but that's not the only benefit to overseas study from an employer's point of view, says Merrick. "It's not just language, it's having experience abroad that makes employers think you'll cope with being sent overseas, for example."

Intercultural experience will also help students work with colleagues from other nations once they begin work, but the focus doesn't need to be purely on career development. Teaching methods vary widely across the world, making overseas study a chance to explore a new learning style – such as the emphasis on group work and problem-based learning in the Netherlands, or the focus on smaller class sizes in Hungary. "Hungarian universities have fewer students, so the student-faculty ratio is a great advantage," explains Dr Maria Trofimova, senior student recruitment co-ordinator at the Central European University in Budapest. "Students can always get individual attention and there is lots of emphasis on student activity in class, with presentations and debates."

Simply learning about another language or culture for its own sake can also have a profound effect on an individual. "If you do a whole degree abroad it will very much change your view of the world," says Merrick. Language need not be a barrier to those eye-opening experiences either, as many classes across Europe are taught in English, and naturally those in English-speaking countries, such as the US, will only need to battle with curious spelling anomalies to see them through their studies.

But with so many countries to choose from, how should students go about deciding where to study? Those with a clear idea of a country they'd like to visit may have a head start, but those who are simply intrigued by the idea of going overseas might ask themselves about their preferred style of study, the subjects that interest them, world academic rankings and of course their budget when drawing up a shortlist of countries to investigate further. "It's a case of working out what you're looking for," says Merrick.

There are several useful places to start. The UKCISA website (ukcisa.org.uk) has a range of general information on countries in the EU and beyond, including China, Australia and the US. Students could also try A Star Future (astarfuture.co.uk), the Association of Commonwealth Universities (acu.ac.uk) and Education USA (educationUSA.info). If language is a concern, www.studyportals.eu has a list of European courses taught in English.

When planning to study in the UK it's usually helpful to visit universities, but this isn't always financially viable for studying abroad, especially for far-flung institutions. However, there are a few UK-based student events – such as the Student World Fair (thestudentworld.com) – that allow candidates to meet staff and students face to face. "The Student World Fairs are free to attend and have universities exhibiting from all over the world to inform attendees all about their campuses, English-taught programmes and city life," says Davies.

Speaking to people who have been through the experience is one of the best ways of finding out about the reality of overseas study, as it's the little things that can create the biggest culture shocks. Differing standards of accommodation, subtle cultural niceties or even the strangely limited number of crisp flavours beyond the UK can all play a part, so it can help to hear other students' tales and get some tips.

"An awful lot of universities have an international office," adds Merrick. "If there is one, find it and see what information for foreign students they have. Many students also use social networks to find people who are already there." In addition to Twitter, Facebook and the other usual suspects, the third year abroad (thirdyearabroad.com) site is aimed at Erasmus students, but remains a good resource for overseas students of all kinds.

Being prepared can make the process of heading abroad much simpler, and staying on top of formalities such as visa applications is vital. The exact application process varies from country to country and between institutions, so again some legwork is needed to find out how, and when, students can submit their applications. "Expect things to be unexpected!" says Merrick. "In many countries there isn't a centralised admissions system, and the process for international students might be different as well. People should look at what stage they need to apply, and when they'll receive offers."

There are other obstacles besides the administrative machinery of foreign institutions that students need to take into account. Homesickness is a very real issue for some, as is the distance from home (although both are somewhat offset by the world-shrinking comfort provided by services such as Skype and, of course, Facebook), and there are other practical matters to consider. "International definitions of disability are not the same," Merrick points out. "For example, some countries don't recognise dyslexia whereas our education system does. So be aware that those support systems might not be in place in all countries."

Costs can be a factor too, as while study in some countries is cheaper, in some places – such as the US – it can be rather pricey. Individual universities may offer their own funding schemes, and there are international scholarships offered by organisations such as the Fulbright Award programme (for US study) or the Commonwealth Scholarships and Fellowships Plan. Embassies or university international offices may be able to provide information on sources of funding, and potentially some UK Research Councils offer subject-specific funding.

Finally, students should make sure that the qualifications they obtain from an overseas university are actually recognised in the country where they ultimately want to work. Individual institutions should be able to clarify this, and Merrick also recommends checking qualifications with the National Academic Recognition Information Centre (naric.org.uk).

Yet despite these extra hurdles to clear, studying abroad can be a hugely enriching process that will forever alter your life and enhance your career prospects. "The main advice is do it!" says Merrick, "it's absolutely worthwhile. There are real possibilities for those who feel they do have the energy and enthusiasm and are excited by the idea of new horizons and new experiences."

In fact, once you leave on your foreign adventure, the only problem might be not wanting to come back.

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