Pack your bags, a world of opportunity is only an ocean away

Higher tuition fees in the UK have made North American universities a competitive option. By Steve McCormack

”Go West, young man,” was the legendary advice given to young Americans living in the East Coast during the mid 19th century; the nub of the message being that untold opportunities awaited those who could harness the land’s natural resources in the vast expanse of the interior and beyond. These days, the advice could comfortably be aimed at British school-leavers, for whom study opportunities in North America are becoming ever more feasible and attractive.

The latest figures, produced by the US-based Institute of International Education, show a two per cent rise in the number of Brits studying at US universities. Nearly 9,000 of them headed across the pond in the academic year 2009/10, and anecdotal evidence suggests the figure is rising.

This is creating a welcome increase in the workload of the US-UK Fulbright Commission, best known for sending exchange students in both directions across the Atlantic and which also provides information and advice to British students interested in applying to American universities for an entire degree course. The commission is expecting applications and admissions to rise even further, while the message emerging from schools in England with links to Fulbright’s education arm suggests growing interest among sixth formers in studying in the US. One of the main reasons for this, and one forcing almost every student to consider the entire range of higher education options, is the steeply rising tuition fees.

Little more than a decade ago, homegrown students paid nothing for tuition at English universities. But, now all universities charge just over the £3,000 mark, and in autumn next year, most institutions look set to raise those fees to £9,000. This is, quite understandably, leading school leavers to look across the Channel to Europe, where university education remains free, or relatively cheap, and to the US, where fees are no longer much more than in the UK.

“British students and parents are feeling the squeeze between rising tuition and budget cuts at UK universities,” says Lauren Welch, director of advising at the Fulbright Commission. “The gap is closing rapidly between tuition rates in both countries, and students are going to study where they can get the most bang for their buck. Many students are saying ‘when you’re already paying up to £9,000, what’s another £3,000 to study in the US?’”

This analysis is supported by teachers working in British schools who see the changing trends of university applications among their sixth formers. “The turn-off factor that used to be there when students realised the costs of studying in the US is becoming much weaker now that fees are rising here,” says Chris Conway, head of careers at Shrewsbury School, which recently hosted an information conference for interested sixth formers, which was attended by students from 30 state and independent schools.

Around three students a year leave Shrewsbury to start university courses in the US, most recently at the University of North Carolina and Harvard. Having visited the US and been impressed by the quality of university education there, Conway is becoming an ever more vocal advocate of the American option. “I’m much more proactive about it these days, rather than reactive,” he says. “I say they would be silly not to consider it as an option.”

So what does it cost to study in the US? “ Each university is autonomous and is able to set its own fees,” says Welch. “But for the academic year just ending, the average tuition fee at public universities was around $19,500 (£12,000) and private universities, of which there are many more in the US than in the UK, charged an average of $27,000 (£17,000).” On top of that come living costs, of course. Fulbright estimate these to be about $9,000 (£5,500) a year, but it must be borne in mind that most universities in the US offer grants and bursaries for the most deserving and academically attractive students to help meet some of these costs.

The admission process to universities in the US follows a similar timeline to the UK, but there is no equivalent of UCAS, so applications are made directly to universities. Another difference is that, under what’s known as the liberal arts system, all degree courses in the US – usually four years in length – begin with either a year or two devoted to a broad range of arts and science subjects, with specialisation coming only later in the course. One common factor is that applicants will have to sit a standardised general aptitude test – either the SAT or the ACT – at a centre in the UK. Universities will also want to know GCSE and A-level grades, and see references from teachers and other adults.

But offers are not usually conditional solely on A-level results. The London office of the Fulbright Commission runs a comprehensive advice service for anyone interested in applying, a key milestone in which is the annual USA College Day in London when representatives from more than 100 American universities set up stands. Last year, around 4,000 British students attended the event, while this year’s event, on 1 October, is expected to attract even more. Find out more at www.fulbright.co.uk/study-in-the-usa.

In Canada, universities are also keen to increase the number of British students enrolling on courses, a figure that has remained steady at around 1,100 a year for the past decade. “A growing number of Canadian universities are offering entrance scholarships to international students,” says Helen Murphy, from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC). “We want to attract different students from all over the world. This is because of the great drive towards internationalism, but also because it adds to the richness of the classroom.”

Like the US, tuition fees in Canada are set by individual institutions, and last year averaged C$16,000 (£10,300). The Canadian government runs a website (www.educationau-incanada.ca) offering advice for foreigners thinking of studying there and the AUCC has a similar offering (www.aucc.ca). Be aware that the government says the application process can be time-consuming, and should be embarked upon at least a year before the intended start date of your chosen course.

For students who aren’t attracted to the thought of spending three of four years away from the UK on a degree course, there is always the option of a year out within an undergraduate course at a British university. One of the destinations on the American continent where this can be done is Mexico. A group of British universities have come together, with the help of the British Council, to form the Mexico-UK Study Abroad Consortium (MUSAC). They are the universities of Birmingham, Bristol, Exeter, Nottingham, Southampton, and Strathclyde. Here, the main difference to studying either in the US or Canada is that most of the time classes will be taught in Spanish. For this reason, the option proves most popular with British undergraduates who already have a language string to their bow. At Strathclyde University, for example, it is the degree students who are mixing international business and a modern language that choose the Mexican option in greatest numbers. Like all exchange students, though, these undergraduates have the chance of spending a month with a Mexican family before the first term, to give their language skills a boost before walking into their first lecture.

With so much choice and so little known about overseas universities, make sure you attend the Student World Fair 2011 at the Emirates Stadium on 8 October, where you’ll get the opportunity to meet with more than 40 international universities. See www.thestudentworld.com for more.



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