Jenny Kelly, aged 26, isn’t quite sure what to expect from the voluntary term she’s planning this autumn at Barcelona’s Universidad Autonoma, but she’s already preparing. “I’m taking a beginner’s course in Spanish, so that should help, though of course the language there is actually Catalan,” she says. “And I play a lot of tennis so I’m hoping for sunshine!”
For Jenny, as for most British students who venture abroad, it’s the unexpected that is the attraction. She comes from Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, and studies English at Roehampton University, south-west London.
“We were offered Australia or the US but I wanted to experience a different culture,” she says. She will travel under the Erasmus exchange scheme, which is funded by the European Union and run by the British Council.
Alexandra Geca, 22, from London, is in her last year at Manchester University, studying German and linguistics. She spent her Erasmus year in Innsbruck, Austria. The surprise, she says, was to find that the Austrians were very conservative.
“They’re proud of their mountains and loyal to their local area. It was a big change from London, where people move about all the time.
“The crime rate is very low and so is the drug use. Instead they’re active. Every weekend is spent skiing or doing some kind of snow sports, or hiking in the summer. You eat an awful lot of pork and potatoes, but the exercise makes up for it.”
These cultural contrasts, together with the friendships formed, are what students remember from their years abroad. But cultures can differ enormously, not only between countries but within them – and even within cities.
“A student in Florence might well be exposed to more Americans than Italians, whereas studying at La Sapienza in Rome would be a deep immersion in Italian culture and language,” says Nunzio Quacquarelli, whose organisation QS produces the Best Student Cities guide.
Even within Paris – the city rated best for students in his survey – there are big differences, he says, so careful research is vital. Other topranked continental cities include Vienna, Zurich, Berlin and Dublin.
Saskia Leech spent a year of her Cambridge language degree at Marburg University, near Frankfurt. “Even though Marburg has a similar number of students to Cambridge, it felt vast and amorphous – there was no nice, cosy college atmosphere,” she says. “There was one massive university with a canteen which served schnitzel the size of your face.”
She found the workload lighter than at Cambridge, and that German students had a more grown-up attitude to drinking. “I got the impression they’d got all the binge-drinking thing out of their systems on school trips when they were 14,” says Saskia.
Spain is also popular for British Erasmus students. Philip Morrison, who works at TopUniversities.com, studied at Granada University. He says the most striking cultural difference for a British student is the Spanish timetable.
“Shops, bars and restaurants open and close later and the afternoon siesta is so widely observed that my local police station closed between 2 and 5pm. Bars might not open until midnight and clubs usually open their doors between 3 and 7am.”
With tuition fees at an all-time high in the UK, many students are now considering an entire degree course abroad. Lorcan Murray, aged 24, from Ulverston, Cumbria, did his degree in Galway. “I chose it over Aberdeen or Glasgow because of the flexibility of the course, and because it was considerably cheaper than the UK.”
Opting to specialise in history and French, he then did an Erasmus year at Strasbourg, and is now a firstyear Masters student of European Studies at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. The course is taught in English.
“Maastricht had a good reputation and its proximity to Brussels made it a good option for European studies,” he says. “The hardest part is finding accommodation. I’m in a university guest house and it’s not cheap.”
Chris Dove has had ample opportunities to compare attitudes to learning, having run the British Council both at Budapest and at Barcelona, where he’s now based.
“What always struck me about Hungarian students was their rigid discipline,” he says. “From the silent queues that formed outside schools to the exquisite perfection of the assignments university students would turn in. They adored academic rigour above anything else.
“The attitude of Spanish students to their degree courses, even when it is a vocational choice, is overpoweringly influenced by the need to pass rather than the thirst for learning.”
But outside the class, young Spaniards, he says, are generally gregarious and enthusiastic.
Employers value Erasmus students for a variety of reasons, Dove finds. “They speak foreign languages, they have some experience of living and working with people from other cultures, they think for themselves and they are accustomed to solving day-to-day problems and getting on with the job.”