I was talking to a friend’s daughter recently, who is a first year history student in London. Mulling over the possibilities for when she has completed her course – you have to start thinking about the next stage long before you reach your finals in these competitive days – she said she was considering a postgraduate year at a Dutch university. It would be an excellent course, and a bit of an adventure, she said. ‘Lots of people are considering it.’ At this point, another, older friend interjected: ’Both our sons are at university in Holland. It’s much cheaper than here, and they are really enjoying it.’
Back in the dark ages when I was at university, a very few particularly brilliant students might go on to study at Harvard or Yale. But I don’t remember anyone considering Holland. Things have moved on, to the point where in mid February, the UK universities admissions body, UCAS, announced that they would expand the options offered to sixth-formers to include a small group of European universities. UCAS says it will: ‘…consider requests from European higher education providers to use UCAS services if they can demonstrate that they meet equivalent standards to those in the UK. The inclusion of a wider range of higher education providers in the UCAS system offers students more choice about where and what to study.’ Universities will have to pay a fee to be included on UCAS’ list. Others, such as the University of Maastricht, plan to use the UCAS mailings service this summer to target students with course information.
A response to higher fees
The introduction of higher university fees of up to £9,000 in 2012 was presaged with doom-laden predictions about a probable drastic fall in applications. In fact, a record number of over 500,000 British and EU students took up a place at a UK university in the 2014/15 academic year. Only about 30,000 left Britain to study. But the growing interest in studying overseas has got to be partly a response to UK fees. Dutch universities such as Maastricht and Groningen charge £1,500 a year and have various courses available in English. The favourable Euro exchange rate is only going to add to the attraction.
But we also live a world where travel is easier and culture crosses borders in the blink of a cursor. The chance to learn in a different environment with all that a foreign city offers would be a fantastic opportunity. It’s always been possible to apply to an EU university, but by including approved continental universities on the UCAS form, the profile of overseas study as a viable option will undoubtedly increase. But at the moment, most students would have to fund themselves. Bodies such as the education think-tank The Sutton Trust are calling for the Government to extend tuition fee loans for English and Welsh students to cover overseas courses. Scotland is ahead of the game, launching a two-year ‘portability pilot’ scheme where students can claim grants, bursaries and tuition fee loans for study at five approved continental universities.
It’s unlikely that there will be a mass exodus, with many eighteen year olds not being ready to face going quite so far from home. However, as my London student friend is considering, Continental postgraduate courses are increasingly attractive. And as Maastricht University President, Martin Paul, said, the benefit will be great for universities as well as students: ‘We are rather thinking of brain circulation, not brain drain.’