Scots seek ‘value for money’ at foreign universities

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GROWING numbers of Scottish school pupils are applying to study overseas to maximise their chances of finding a job after graduation.

Despite similar levels of tuition fees and expensive travel costs, more young people are choosing universities in Europe, the United States and even Australia.

According to teachers and university admissions officers, the move has been prompted by the economic downturn and the increasingly difficult job market, leaving applicants to re-assess their motivation for going into higher education.

From the start of the next academic year, new higher-rate tuition fees will mean students across the UK will pay up to £9,000 a year for their degrees. While Scots remain exempt from fees in their home country, anyone travelling to university in England, Wales or Northern Ireland will be required to pay.

Figures released earlier this week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that, across the UK, a quarter of 21-year-olds who left university with a degree in 2011 were unable to find a job.

David Gray, headteacher of Edinburgh private school Stewart’s Melville College, said he was seeing increasing numbers of his pupils applying to study abroad as they look to make the most of their investment in higher education.

“A lot of young people are now thinking about university and whether they will get a job at the end of it,” he said. “They are asking whether it is worthwhile and whether it will lead to anything.”

Gray said there were now around 40 European universities, including those in the Netherlands and Italy, where courses are taught in English. The universities are not included in pupils’ Ucas choices, allowing them to pick five UK institutions and still apply overseas.

“We are interested in universities like Maastricht, Leiden, The Hague, Utrecht and Milan because they have courses that are delivered in English, because the number of teaching contact hours is high and because they offer value for money,” he said.

“Young people are shaping the future of higher education by being more selective about where they choose to study. I’m not saying foreign universities are better than our own, but they are a realistic option. It’s understandable that prospective students should be looking around.”

Ten Stewart’s Melville pupils are currently applying to European universities, while one is already studying medicine in Milan. Gray said the cost of studying at Maastricht, including fees, accommodation, subsistence and travel was around £9,000 – the same as the cost of tuition fees at some English universities from this year.

Iain Hall, a 19-year-old former pupil at James Gillespie’s High in Edinburgh, a state school, is currently studying for a degree at the University of Melbourne.

The teenager moved to Australia last year, leaving his friends and family behind, and will soon enter the second year of a Bachelor of Arts (BA), majoring in politics.

He said: “Moving to Australia was a bit strange at first because I didn’t know anyone here, but I would have faced the same sort of challenges if I had moved to London.”

Hall’s family are paying around £12,000 a year for his three-year degree, which will allow him to obtain a two-year Australian work visa.

“The way my parents looked at it was they didn’t pay anything in school fees, so a three-year degree works out roughly equivalent to a high school education at a private school. They told me to go away and research it and they would go and research the financial side. They came back and said they thought it was a good idea.

“I had always wanted to live overseas, and for the course I’m doing, Melbourne did really well in the world rankings.

“It’s been brilliant and I’ve met a lot of great people. I still keep in touch with a few of my friends from school, and I would say the big difference seems to be that a lot of them have managed to blag their way through first year, whereas here there is a lot more focus on academics than socialising.”

Sarah Nash, director of Study Options, a free advice and application service for students applying to universities in Australia and New Zealand, said more students were spurning the traditional gap year abroad in favour of gaining their degree overseas.

She said: “We’ve seen a big rise in terms of inquiries this year. We try and keep in touch with as many students as we can, and more and more of them are looking to stay in Australia and get that all-important first job. The economic situation there is a bit more buoyant and there are a lot more opportunities around.

“People want to travel, they want to get out and see the world. But they also want to be doing something very worthwhile with their time – not the traditional working in a bar.”