This is a topic which has been making more more and frequent appearances in the British media. The arguments against English students reading for a degree in Scandinavia, Germany, or the Netherlands, for example, used to be pretty strong. Over the last fifteen years or so, though, those arguments have been getting weaker and weaker. What’s changed, and is it making a difference?
If we take 1997 as a starting point, the option of staying in the UK or heading into Continental Europe to study was probably only asked by a hardy few. Going to a university at home or ‘over there’ was pretty affordable: there were no tuition fees, and the cost of living could be covered by state loans and part-time jobs. But if you wanted to study at a research-intensive university in the Netherlands or Denmark, for example, you’d need to be fluent in Dutch or Danish, and it would take you more than five years to graduate. With undergrad degrees taking three to four years in the UK, and obviously being in English, there was no real reason to go elsewhere.
Things began to change from 1998 onwards. That year saw the introduction of tuition fees in the UK, at £1000 per student, per year. This created a significant ripple in national level politics and protests, but far larger waves from other sources soon followed. 1998 also marked the year that France, England, Germany and Italy announced that they wanted to make their university systems more compatible. This was followed a year later by the ‘Bologna Declaration’, where 29 countries signed up to more closely aligning their degrees. Why?
The most obvious problem they were facing was one of internal mobility. The EU was supposed to be a space for free movement of workers, but each country had its own degree structures and these could be very different from those of its neighbours. This meant that getting your qualifications recognised by employers was difficult when you moved. A less obvious issue was that mainland Europe was struggling to attract international students. As I’ve written elsewhere, hosting international students is partly soft politics because it creates bridges between countries and cultures. It’s basic economics if those students pay fat tuition fees and if you want the best brains to study and research in your universities and work in your businesses. The situation in Europe on international student tuition is mixed; they pay a lot in the UK, but nothing in Germany. This is classified as an export market, in that international students come for a degree and metaphorically take it home with them. In 1975, there were less than a million students worldwide, and in 2014 there will have been almost 5 million. It’s a very big deal now.
Most European degrees were not structured as a Bachelor and Master (what’s referred to as ‘BaMa’), but a five-year or longer Diploma or Magister, and then a PhD. This made countries with them less popular destinations than the UK/US/Canada/Oceania. They already had BaMa – in English, the global language of business – and these countries comfortably dominated the international student market. The UK didn’t have to change much, and the ‘Bologna Process’ as it became known, was virtually unknown there. Elsewhere, though, this was an enormous undertaking, undoing centuries of traditions and there were huge protests, but the changes steadily went ahead. In practice, the ‘old’ degrees were more or less sliced in two, from a five to six-year course to a 3+2 or, more commonly, a 4+2. By the late 2000s in Europe, the university landscape was almost unrecognisable from the turn of the millennium. Most of those long degrees had been converted, and some of them were now available in English. Domestic tuition fees in the UK had risen to £3,000, and were still minor or non-existent in other parts of the new ‘European Higher Education Area’ (EHEA). It was also interesting to see that the Bologna bandwagon was growing – there are now nearly 50 EHEA member countries.
Then, in 2011, English students suddenly had to pay up to £9,000 to study, and this is before living costs are included. The situation is less extreme in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where their governments subsidise all or more of the cost of study. But if you’re English, and unless your parents help out or you earn while you’re studying, you’ll be, on average, £45,000 in debt at the end of your degree. Many of the arguments for staying in the UK to study suddenly shrivelled up. Why not go to Maastricht, or Sofia, with the option of getting a degree in English for a fraction of the cost?
It’s not clear how many people are taking this option up, as the stats are unreliable and the figures vary depending on where you look. The number of domestic students staying in the UK is still rising, although there was a dip just after the 2010 fee hike. The system seems to have recovered overall, although there has been a massive drop in the number of part-time and mature students. But out of 1.8 million domestic students in the UK, it seems that only around 30-35,000 study overseas for a whole degree. That’s under 2% of the total number of UK students. International students make up 2% of all students worldwide, and UK universities welcomed 425,000 of them in 2012 – or 18% of the total number studying here. 9,000 UK residents went to the US to study, which has similar or higher fees, and about 11,000 studied in the EHEA.
I wonder if the numbers of people from the UK – particularly from England – studying in Continental Europe are going to change much. Tuition fees here could go up again, maybe not in the near future but possibly within the next 5-10 years. They will probably rise in many of our European neighbours, too, but I doubt if they’ll ever catch up with ‘ours’. This means that it’s always going to be cheaper there. There is the hassle factor of having to move to another country, find accommodation and so on, but universities tend to be good at helping with settling in. You also have to negotiate different admissions systems, but interestingly the organisation that manages applications for UK universities is now adding some Dutch university degrees taught in English. The barriers to studying elsewhere are a fraction of what they were in 1997, and the difference in cost is now huge. Perhaps it’s a case of basic sociology: nobody does it because nobody else does it. We’re obviously a long way from having a critical mass of people heading overseas. If I was finishing school now, I’d seriously think about it. By the time my kids are of the right age, it might completely normal.