When I was a student I signed up for a semester exchange to Stuttgart University under the umbrella of the newly founded Erasmus scheme. It seemed an easy decision: here was a chance for adventure whilst simultaneously ducking out of a couple of rather grim-looking classes that loomed across my second year. So I packed my rucksack, boarded a train and off I went. The ensuing six months passed in a wonderful city living with some fantastic people. The experience opened my eyes to how close the rest of the world really was and you could argue it set me on the path to where I am today.
Pleased as I was to return home and see my friends again, I wondered why more students didn’t just take up the opportunity to do their degrees abroad? My thoughts turned particularly to modern languages students: why didn’t they achieve the competency in a language they desired as well as study something else?
Back then, of course, the fact that you would have to study entirely in a foreign language was a daunting enough prospect to deter even the hardiest British student. As well as that, I had naively failed to acknowledge that the extravagance of missing out on your student grant and having to pay around 300 Deutschmarks a semester was enough to put those plans to rest for good.
Now, however, the educational landscape has changed considerably. UK students are facing the mounting costs of studying at higher education level here in the UK and canny students, parents and counsellors do need to consider whether or not it represents good value for money. Whilst there are many options available to cut costs, such as attending a university close to home or studying part time while earning, it still does not necessarily make it a prudent ROI. Whilst those of us in the education industry can feel relatively smug about putting our degrees to good use, I regularly meet people for whom university was a rather underwhelming experience or, at worst, a bit of a waste of time.
So why not head to Europe for university? The fees are noticeably cheaper, loans and even the occasional grant are available in many countries and Euro-zone bound students will gain two skills for the price of one, a degree and mastery of a foreign language. Skills which, in an increasingly competitive employment market, will add something truly unique to their CVs. What’s not to love?
Of course, there are issues such as homesickness and loneliness, but these can happen with students who only live a few miles away, and with the air travel growing ever more frequent, cheap and accessible, this is becoming less and less of an issue. Besides, there’s always Ireland, a booming market for UK student applications, if culture shock is really going to hit hard.
One particular country in the EU gaining a reputation as a desirable study destination is The Netherlands. With excellent air links to the UK, over 1,500 courses available in English and six universities riding high in the QS World rankings, there is a great deal to attract the individual who is happy to look outside what UCAS has to offer. The prestigious University of Amsterdam, a Mecca for the social sciences, peaks in terms of fees at 3,000 Euros a year and loans and grants are available if you know what to look for. As a country, The Netherlands enjoys a relatively low crime rate, peerless cycle networks and a foreigner-friendly culture. Eighty thousand international students already study a range of subjects including social sciences, medicine and engineering, and with English widely spoken and understood, it would, in my opinion, take a lot to beat.
But this is hardly a new phenomenon we are speaking of. Tucked away in the Malvern Hills is probably one of European education’s best kept secrets, the Czech Medical University and College Admissions Service.
CMUCAS have been quietly sending UK students to study medicine in the Czech Republic for 24 years now, with numbers increasing year on year. All this is done with barely a whisper of marketing since the majority of students come through personal recommendation. With UK medical school places fiercely contested, the opportunity for students to take an alternative route is extremely tempting. Not only that, but it can turn out to be a bargain. UK university accommodation generally starts at around £100 a week; in Prague it will set you back £150 a month and universities such as Brno, a pretty, compact little city three hours west of Prague, won’t even charge that. Even with fees for students reaching 12,000 Euros, the cost of living enables considerable savings.
Of course, there will always be the ones best avoided. As an agent, I am in constant receipt of emails from suspect European universities offering a wide range of courses in English, eager for foreign students. With a small amount of research, these often turn out to be poorly funded private institutions with substandard facilities and a handful of lecturers whose English language skills are intermediate at best. I have already had to break it to one British family this year that the medical degree they sent their son to study at a Ukrainian university is effectively null and void over here. The lesson we can learn here is to always do your homework.
But whilst it is important to choose carefully, isn’t that the same with all universities? I would certainly like to know what my child’s university looked like before I committed £27,000 of my money (or even more importantly their money) to it.