British universities face losing thousands of students to cheaper English language courses at top Europe institutions, researchers warned today.
“Higher education in most of Britain is already more expensive than in the continent and universities may witness a huge exodus when fees rocket next year, it was claimed.
Leading Dutch universities currently offer degree courses at less than £2,000, compared with up to £9,000 for students starting degrees in England in 2012, while many of those in Scandinavia offer undergraduate courses in English free of charge.
The disclosure came as international league tables were published today showing that British universities remain among the best in the world.
Cambridge beat hundreds of competitors to top the QS World University Rankings, which rate institutions by the quality of research, teaching, graduate job prospects and international reputation.
Harvard – the elite American university – was named in second place.
According to figures, four British universities, including Oxford, Imperial and University College London, appear in the top 10 for the second year running.
Some 19 in total were among the top 100 – the same as last year.
The strong showing for British institutions comes despite swingeing cuts to the higher education budget in the last 12 months.
Experts said this had yet to have a serious effect on universities’ global standing, although figures suggest more students are being squeezed into lectures after academics were made redundant to save money.
But it is feared that the cuts combined with rises in fees may start to hit Britain’s reputation for higher education next year.
The QS rankings show that many continental universities rank higher than British competitors despite offering courses at a fraction of the price.
John O’Leary, editor of the Times Good University Guide, said: “With so many well-qualified UK candidates missing out on university places, this year’s QS rankings may encourage many to consider applying to universities abroad.
“While studying abroad has traditionally been seen as the preserve of a wealthy minority, fee increases alongside greater provision of English-language degrees in Europe mean that it could now actually be a money-saving alternative – this is an entirely new situation.”
Data from QS compares course costs with universities’ global standing.
This shows that many universities named among the best in the world are already able to offer courses at a fraction of the cost in Britain, where maximum fees will increase from £3,290 to £9,000 next year.
Universities in the Netherlands offer a “value-for-money alternative” for British students, researchers said.
Amsterdam, Utrecht and Leiden, which are in the top 100, all provide English-language programmes at less than £2,000 a year. Courses in English are also offered at Maastricht, which is ranked 109 in the table.
They outrank Russell Group institutions such as Liverpool, Newcastle and Cardiff, which are planning to charge up to £9,000 from 2012.
Other highly-ranked foreign universities also offer relatively cheaper courses, said QS.
The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, which was 18th, charges just over £600. Tokyo University, which was 25th, charges around £3,700.
Many German universities stage courses at around £800, while some English language courses at Scandinavian universities are free of charge, QS said.
Ben Sowter, QS head of research, said: “Travel is a part of life for many young people and as domestic fees increase, it is inevitable that people will seriously consider their options.””