With the UK’s tuition fees set to rise and international education standards continuously improving, is there really any point in expat children returning to their home country to study for a degree?
In the past, looking at foreign higher education was something only other countries did, like the new powers of China and India, or the Asian tigers. British expat parents who had to school their children overseas only did so on the understanding that this was in preparation for when they returned to study at a British university. But not anymore. Now, a far greater proportion of British students are studying for a degree abroad: 22,000 in 2010 or 1.7 per cent of the total (compared with just 1.4 per cent of Chinese and one per cent of Indian students).
More expat families, it seems, are keeping their options open. One of the factors in this is the perception that the British university system is in a state of flux. Some commentators have gone as far as suggesting a crisis as a result of the “marketisation” of higher education, where the tripling of tuition fees, reduction in courses and suggestions of grade inflation all add up to a situation where paying customers – and not quality – is king. Whether there is any truth in this picture or not, global rankings reflect the rise of overseas institutions and the increasing levels of investment in foreign university offerings at a time when UK budgets are being cut. Germany, for example, has an €18 billion (£16 billion) investment programme in place for science and technology institutions.
Non-British universities can offer some real advantages in terms of cost, and also in providing the kind of international experience, independent living and opportunities to hone language skills which can make a student’s CV stand out from the pack. Maastricht University in the Netherlands has successfully positioned itself as a real alternative for UK students. Most undergraduate and masters degrees are taught in English and fees are around €1,500 (£1,300) a year. Universities in Milan and Valencia have also begun to be popular options. The universities in Ireland have a “Free Fees Initiative” but students have been required to pay a registration fee of €1,500. In general, EU universities offer a good deal, with many charging the same fee levels to UK students as home students (which can be as low as £200 per year).
More than 9,000 Brits also go to the US each year. It’s a more expensive option, with the Ivy League charging up to £25,000 annually, but the system includes many potential scholarships and bursaries. The most popular US universities in general with British students are the University of Southern California, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Brigham Young University and New York University.
Another major development to consider is the trend for British universities to open campuses overseas. This has primarily been an effort to reach vast new audiences of students in countries like India and China, but these campuses also provide opportunities for expats to combine a British-style education with an international location. The University of Nottingham for example has a campus in Malaysia; Middlesex University is in Dubai and Mauritius; and Lancaster University has a presence in China and Nigeria.
Of course, Britain continues to punch well above its weight on the world stage of education, and not all young people are suited to the demands of studying abroad, especially if they’re heading to a new country away from family or have no real desire to learn new languages. For some, returning to the UK is an important way of helping expat children feel secure and to re-establish their sense of having a home and roots. Family there can help with support and with accommodation to mitigate the potentially high fees, while studying in one’s home country also provides a more natural route into full-time work there when a degree is completed. The new environment for higher education will also bring many additional services and benefits as universities vie to compete for students. Just as one example, Coventry University now guarantees levels of contact time with senior academics and industry practitioners in its prospectus, and provides “welcome packs” which can include anything from core textbooks and equipment to a free laptop.
Yet all the trends indicate that many more expat children could be studying at foreign universities in the future. If you or your child are considering it, one of the main things to look out for is recognition of qualifications. While British and US degrees tend to be commonly accepted across the world, we’re still waiting for the establishment of a system for transferring higher education “credits” gained from system to system. Professional bodies in individual countries for areas like the law and medicine will have their own lists of recognised qualification providers. The increasing mobility of students and workforces, as well as the increasing numbers of partnerships and links between institutions internationally, means this kind of framework isn’t so far away, and the result is likely to be a shift in attitudes to overseas universities and the opportunities they bring.