UK graduates look to new horizons

Studying abroad is proving an increasingly popular option. Sarah Morrison finds out why
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The Independent Online

Little is disclosed about the number of UK students who go abroad to study for postgraduate degrees. It is a largely undocumented area that is overlooked and often miscalculated. Yet as graduates start to speculate over increased tuition fees, diminishing funding and the changes to the quality of the postgraduate sector at home, it seems they are ready to face the unknown.

While approximately 22,000 UK students are enrolled in higher education programmes overseas, the Higher Education Careers Service Unit estimates that only around 0.3 per cent of those who graduated last year chose to pursue postgraduate studies abroad. While a lack of information and presumed costs seem to fuel students' trepidation, officials in the sector say the option to leave the UK has never been more attractive.

"Students are worried that the funding council might not be able to fund as much postgraduate study in the UK and that research money is going to be pulled by universities," said Lauren Welch, the director of advising for the US-UK Fulbright Commission.

"There is a looming undercurrent and concern about what they are getting here, so they want to throw their hat in the ring and get a second option."

In fact, there was a 9 per cent increase in the number of international applicants to the US last year, with 2,468 students from the UK enrolled in American postgraduate courses in 2008/09. Although tuition fees can range from £21,000 to just over £40,000 a year, the US has become the most popular place for UK students to study abroad.

"I think the American system has had more time to adapt to this profit-orientated, market-led approach to education," said one of this year's Fulbright finalists, Sophie Lewis, 22, who is studying for a Masters at Oxford University's Environmental Institute and is planning to study in Berkeley or New York next year. "I am expecting a higher degree of student-teacher collaboration than I'm getting here at Oxford."

Louise Hickman, 31, is in her final year of American studies at King's College London and said that, as she wants to study a doctorate in disability studies, the US is the only option. She said: "In the UK, the subject doesn't really exist yet, they base it in social sciences and not humanities. America offers me much more than this."

With more than $49bn (£30bn) invested in research and development in US university campuses and with 1,700 institutions offering postgraduate study, it seems the concern for many prospective students lies with costs.

Yet, while only half of all international applicants to the US obtain funding through university "assistantships", it seems studying abroad does not have to mean paying more.

"The UK Government is reducing funding for higher education at a time when other countries are increasing it," said Beatrice Merrick, director of services and research at the UK Council for International Student Affairs.

"One might think the most exciting and cutting edge research could be as easily found elsewhere in Europe in even more supportive systems than is available here."

For Natalie Costello, 23, this sentiment could not be more true. When she heard her scholarship-funded Masters in contemporary European film and literature at Manchester Metropolitan University was cancelled two months before she was due to start, she began to research less traditional options.

Now enrolled in her first of two years studying Language Culture Enterprise at the Université Jean Moulin – Lyon 3, she wonders why she ever contemplated studying at home. After having done an Erasmus year in France and living there for a year before she applied to study, she is entitled to a monthly bursary of €450 (£394) and €200 towards medical insurance. Costello is paying just €40 a year for her Masters.

She said: "When I think about how much I pay per academic year, the amount of modules I have and the quality of teaching in France compared to the modules proposed to me at home, it makes me really wonder why I ever decided to do even my undergraduate degree in the UK."

Even without funding, a UK student will never have to pay more than the local tuition fees charged by a European country, thanks to EU mobility laws. For the 2,519 students who studied in France in 2008/09, that was approximately €250 (£219) a year, a paltry sum compared to the current uncapped postgraduate fees in the UK, which run from £2,000 to £30,000 a year.

With Sweden charging no tuition fees at all, Gavyn Edmunds, 25, said he did not "pay a penny" for his two-year Masters in political science at the University of Lund.

While calling it "one of the best experiences" of his life, he said there is not enough information for students who want to study in other European countries. "Many people don't realise how many courses there are out there which are taught entirely in English and have no, or minimal, tuition fees."

After America and countries within Europe, the next most popular destination for students who want to travel further afield is Australia, with 1,933 UK students enrolled in Australian higher education in 2009. With 43 institutions to choose from, UK graduates are able to work whilst studying, but must pay full rates for their course. The average tuition fees for a Masters or PhD cost between £5,490 and £9,230 per year.

Yet, according to the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission (CSC), which nominates UK students for overseas scholarships, next year signals an emphasis on study in countries less associated with study abroad. A new endowment will offer UK students the chance to study in countries, including Kenya, Tanzania, and Bangladesh.

For Maeve McClenaghan, 26, her experience studying a Masters in international law and human rights at the UN University for Peace in Costa Rica has been "perfect." Receiving a grant to help pay the £25,000 tuition fees, she said: "The boundaries of academic prestige are widening. I think this will result in an increase of students from the global north looking outside the slightly stale academic institutions there to explore the intellectual possibilities in other parts of the world."