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Continental option grows in popularity

The Independent
Europe offers some great English taught courses

It’s been a busy time at continental European universities. While introductory weeks – on a par with freshers’ events - have been predictably riotous, the real work begins rather suddenly. Just as UK-based students are just beginning to get their feet under their desks, their counterparts on the continent are studying hard – even grades in the first weeks of term might count towards final degrees.

This came as a shock to Mayowa Oduola from London, who chose to study Economics and Business at the University of Groningen, lured by its international ranking and lower fees. “It may have been easy to get accepted into my degree programme but difficult to keep my place on my course and pass most of my exams,” she says. “I feel though that we are offered a high level of education at a low cost.” She’s one of a trickle of UK trailblazers who’ve been crossing the channel in search of broader horizons and cheaper options since UK fees soared - nearly 1,800 bachelor degrees are now taught in English elsewhere in Europe.

Dutch universities have been surprised to welcome UK parents in ever greater numbers at open days in the last couple of years – traditionally continental parents tend to be more hands-off – but as careers adviser Cerys Evans, author of Studying Abroad 2014 notes, “the stakes are now so high in the UK – more pressure for fees and places, that naturally parents will be involved”. More students are beginning to inquire about study abroad at Sheffield sixth forms where she works. Numbers of UK students coming to the Netherlands doubled last year - Maastricht, the most popular of Dutch universities, welcomed 298 students for the UK, and more than a thousand full-time UK students are in the Netherlands. But British students are still relatively reluctant travellers and will find themselves outnumbered by other international cohorts from Europe and Asia in particular.

“Students I talk to are naturally cautious,” says Evans. “As with UK applications they need to do the right research, there are so many variables, so many different types of institution.” Many students applying abroad also apply for UK universities too before making their final choice. Some Dutch universities hold open events in the UK in Spring, and also lay on UK meetings early in the academic year, tailor made for international students.

While the Netherlands – with lower course fees than the UK of 1,835 Euros a year and the greatest variety of English-taught bachelor subjects on the continent – is overwhelmingly the most popular European choice among UK students after Ireland, other countries are increasing their English-taught options. Germany, which in recent years has restructured its university system and had a glut of national undergraduates, has now opened its first university college in Freiburg, which began offering a liberal arts and science programme in autumn 2012. Most German universities however require Maths and a language at A-level. Nordic countries – Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland all offer English taught undergraduate degrees, at very little cost – although living expenses are high. “Denmark will be one to watch in the future,” says Evans – recent changes to funding mean EU students should have access to student grants. Currently Danish universities offer just half of what’s available in English the Netherlands. Beyond these countries, study in English is mostly limited to private universities, especially in Spain and Italy.

While many Dutch universities require only basic A-level passes as entry requirements, students are rigorously assessed from the start of their degree and required to pass regular exams. More popular courses at prestigious universities – such as psychology at Groningen or international law at Maastricht require higher grades, as do the highly popular residential university colleges such at Leiden, Utrecht, and Amsterdam. Choice of subject will often dictate destination – Groningen is the only Dutch university to offer Physics for example, or Lund University in Sweden currently the only place to study a geography-based undergraduate degree in English.

Some 12 Dutch universities feature in the Times Higher Education world university rankings, with Leiden ranked highest at 64th. But rankings – while important to employers – don’t necessarily give a reliable idea of student experience. Prestigious Dutch “research” universities offer a similar experience to Russell Group institutions in the UK, while universities of applied sciences offer more vocational courses with small classes, often heavy on practical learning and work placements.

“Many UK students might be pleasantly surprised by classroom experience,” says Vicki Sellens, a careers adviser formerly with Connexions and now at Berkshire College of Agriculture. “At the University of Amsterdam, students can design their own study programme, at Maastricht there’s a focus on problem-based learning. Many students report smaller classes and more contact time – and many courses have a stronger employability focus than at British universities.”

Liberal arts colleges – often smaller, campus-based and more intimate – have been well-received with UK students. Fees at these Dutch colleges are higher – Leiden for instance charges around around 3,800 Euros a year. “A three-year undergraduate degree at a Dutch university costs roughly half of its UK equivalent,” says Mark Huntingdon, founder of studyinholland.co.uk. As he notes, UK students abroad won’t receive any loans from the UK government; but they will receive a tuition fee loan from the Dutch government, but this must be repaid in full, and unlike in the UK, there’s no mechanism for writing off debt. This year the Dutch government has raised the bar for eligibility for a maintenance grant and as of January 2014 students need to work at least a daunting 56 hours a week rather than 32 hours to qualify.

While admissions for the Dutch university colleges fall in January – and you might be called for interview - for other Dutch universities they’re mostly in May, although students can find places as late as July or August when welcome events begin. Late entrants, however, often struggle to find good accommodation and arrange finances in time.

But do employers recognise the worth of a non-UK degree? This, say career advisers, is one of the most frequently asked questions. Not enough students have yet graduated from European universities in any great numbers to produce any meaningful statistics. In theory any degree from an EU university carries the same weight. And larger multinational employers will of course value a global outlook, extra language skills and general life experience that settling in another country develops. “It’s really important students can articulate the type of institution they’ve been to (for UK employers),” says Evans, “and what they’ve learned from it – the personal and academic benefits – which are great.”

John Whalley, 20, from Gloucestershire, in his second year studying International Hospitality Management at Stenden University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands.

I received offers from the five UK universities I applied to but this course seemed to specialise and offer practical experience you wouldn’t get in the UK. Stenden University has a four star hotel, bar and restaurant mostly staffed by students and open to the public. It also has links with global hotel brands such as Hilton Hotels. I like travelling and want to work abroad – I hope to do an exchange during my third year in South Korea. Stenden has campus sites in South Africa, Qatar, Thailand, Bali and students are able to travel to these during modules. I’m learning Spanish. I’ve been surprised how international the students are – from Germany, Finland, France, America, Norway China and Asia – it’s a friendly place with everyone in the same boat. Accommodation here is cheaper than the UK – I’m in student halls which cost 395 Euros a month. I’m too busy with studies to earn money during term time but I come back to work in the UK during the holidays. I think employers in the hospitality business will look highly upon international experience.

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