With university tuition fees set to triple for students starting degree courses in September next year, it’s hardly surprising that there’s a surge of applications for undergraduate courses starting this coming autumn.
But there’s a less well-publicised side effect of the steeply rising fees at British universities, namely the growing attractiveness of studying at universities across the English Channel.
For well over a decade, small numbers of British students have chosen to head into Europe for their undergraduate course, usually seeking out degree programmes taught in English, an educational path made reasonably straightforward by Britain’s membership of the EU and various pan-European educational organisations. Universities in the Netherlands and Scandinavia were the trailblazers in offering degrees taught in English, and are still the most popular destinations for British students. But smaller numbers are now choosing courses in Germany, Italy, France, and Luxembourg. And Irish universities, too, have historically attracted a steady stream of Brits, a phenomenon that can only strengthen, given lower fees across the Irish Sea.
But universities in other European countries have not developed degrees taught in English specifically for Brits. They’re principally aimed at – and are popular with – students from China, India, Eastern Europe and South America, for whom an academic qualification linked to increased competence in the world’s most sought-after language is highly attractive in career terms. These students pay full tuition fees, which bolsters the viability of courses.
Regardless of intent, this phenomenon in creases the attractiveness of the courses to British school leavers, since it means they’ll be studying among a rich range of nationalities: a bonus in both academic and social terms.
However, it’s the financial factor that threatens to be a potential game changer in the minds of British soon-to-be undergraduates, and their parents. Since UK university fees went up to £3,000, and with the impending rise to £9,000 not much more than a year away, it’s becoming unarguable that, in many instances, studying at a university on the European mainland will be cheaper than opting for a UK institution.
Tuition charges vary across Europe, but there are no state-run universities anywhere that levy fees to EU nationals for undergraduate courses of anything approaching the £9,000 mark. But postgraduate courses (particularly for business degrees and for all programmes at private universities) are liable to charge well past that figure.
In Germany and Holland, for example, tuition fees for EU students are well below even the current fees in the UK. Dutch universities charge just over €1,700 a year for undergraduate courses, and tuition fees at most German institutions have been abolished. Even in those German states where fees still exist, the maximum is €1,000 a year.
In Scandinavia, despite the fact that most universities don’t charge any fees, the numbers of British students taking advantage has, so far, remained low. At the University of Southern Denmark, for instance, in the country’s third city, Odense, where tuition is free for EU nationals, there are nearly 40 courses taught in English – chiefly in business, engineering and humanities subjects. But only 30 British students are currently enrolled. There are 10 times as many German students there, and an even larger number from the Netherlands.
“The interest is there among British students, but, it’s low,” says Bo Kristiansen, from the university’s marketing department. “We think that’s because there isn’t any real tradition of UK students going abroad to study.”
Public universities in France charge around the £200 mark for undergraduates, but, given the unique pride – some would say defensiveness – the French have about their mother tongue, almost all undergraduate courses are taught in French. However, many postgraduate courses, particularly in the business field and those aimed at the international market, are taught in English.
Irish universities, which had no fees until recently, now have a system where EU students pay €2,000 a year. And despite the country’s precarious economic condition, there are currently no plans to increase that figure. “We don’t recruit outside Ireland, largely because there are no resources to do so,” explains Sue Power, admissions officer at Trinity College Dublin, “but applications are always welcome from British students, as they are from France, Germany and so on.” This year’s applications from British students, she said, showed a marginal increase, of about 100, on the previous year, something that may be due to the fees issue.
For Londoner Sarah Brooks, 22, just graduated with an English degree from Trinity, finance was not the decisive issue, even though, starting her course four years ago, she paid no tuition fees.
“I applied to Trinity because, despite good grades, I got only two offers from the six British universities I applied to, neither of which were my top choices,” she explains. “My four A-levels (grades AAAB) gave me enough points, though, to get in to Trinity, which also attracted me because of its fantastic location and its beautiful, historic campus.”
Once there, Brooks never regretted leaving British shores for her higher education: “The lecturers were inspiring and one of the department’s particular strengths was that with a relatively small student intake (there were approximately 40 students studying English single honours in the first year) lecture and tutorial sizes were smaller than at most British universities. And in the first and second year, I also had about 12 contact hours a week, which for an arts degree is very good.”
For the British school leaver thinking of venturing further afield than the UCAS-listed universities, researching options is far easier than you might think. It’s not unusual these days for universities in European countries to have websites with fully functioning English- language versions, with several pages aimed directly at foreign students.
A few minutes of basic internet searching throws up several of these kinds of sites, at European, national and individual university level.
A typical example is Jönköping University (hj.se/en), situated at the southern end of a picturesque inland lake in Sweden. Even this relatively small university runs three undergraduate courses taught in English (international economics and policy; international management; and nursing) and 13 Masters programmes, in the areas of business, engineering and health sciences.
The country with the greatest choice is Holland, where all public universities teach at least some courses in English. At the University of Twente, for instance, four out of the 20 bachelors courses on offer are taught in English: creative technology, public administration, international business administration and advanced technology.
Entry requirements vary, with British A-levels universally recognised. However, some countries have a potential obstacle. In Germany, for example, almost all undergraduate courses require you to have an A-level in a foreign language, even if, as is reasonably common, the course is taught in English.
As far as accommodation is concerned, studying outside the UK will probably mean living off campus in private housing, since halls of residence are rare across the Channel. However, most universities have accommodation services to point foreign students in the right direction. And, since courses in English attract students from all over the world, there is little chance that the incoming British student will feel in any way isolated or alone in getting settled in a foreign country.
In fact, the opposite appears to be true – the whole experience, alongside the academic qualification, is likely to broaden horizons and enhance a CV in a way that can only be beneficial in the competitive jobs market.
‘I think it’s value for money’
Mark Hartland, 24, is doing a degree in business administration, specialising in finance, at the (private) BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo.
“After doing A-levels in English literature, media studies and sociology at a college in Sussex, I took a gap year, with the intention of earning some money before going to university in the UK. Through a family friend, I got a job working for an international real estate company in Norway, mainly using my English to help with the correspondence and emails coming from around the world.
I had a place to do a business degree at Portsmouth, but things were going so well in Norway – and I was earning more than I ever could have done in the UK – so I decided to stay.
Then the global financial crisis came and everything in the international real estate business stopped dead, so I figured that was the right time to go to university and get the qualifications to back up what I had been doing as a job already. I chose to go to BI because it had a good reputation in Norway.
The course is great and I think the facilities here are better than I would have in the UK. There are three other Brits on the course, alongside students from the USA, Canada, Brazil, Russia, and Norway itself, which accounts for about 50 per cent. The fees are about £7,000 a year, which sounds a lot, but I think it’s value for money. You have to relate that to what you can earn here. For example, a job in McDonald’s pays £12 an hour in Norway.”
'It’s unusually easy to get into a university in Holland'
Theresa Bullock, 19, from Worcestershire, is in her first year of a bachelors degree in knowledge engineering at Maastricht University.
“I didn’t want to stay in Britain because studying abroad was always more appealing, so I just researched on the internet, looking for places in Europe that taught degrees in English.
It’s unusually easy to get into university in Holland – because the Dutch think everyone should have a chance. So I was offered a place on the condition that I got three A-level passes, and had 5 GCSEs. But it’s extremely hard to stay there, because the work is very intense, so there’s a high drop-out rate. For example, we have an exam every eight weeks and the holidays are much shorter than at British universities.
Knowledge engineering is a bit like computer science, combined with maths, psychology, business management and logic, and there’s lot of computer programming in it.
The fees this year are €1,696 (going up to just over €1,700 this autumn) which, being less than I’d be paying in the UK, was definitely part of the motivation. Finding accommodation was quite easy because the university has two housing companies that help students find somewhere to live. I’m living in a shared house with seven other students, from different years and nationalities. There’s a German, a Belgian, a Hungarian and some Dutch. It’s been a great way to meet other people, because I didn’t know anyone else when I came.”