Adam Hussain was about to go to university in 2013 when tuition fees in the UK nearly trebled to £9,000. With additional loans for living costs, he realised he would incur debts of £40,000. So when he saw a television report about an exodus of UK students to the Netherlands, Hussain decided to attend an open day at Maastricht University, where annual fees were €2,000 (then about £1,700). That year more than 1,000 British freshers started university in the Netherlands.
“I already wanted to live abroad; when the higher fees came in it was a no-brainer,” says Hussain, 24, who attended an east London comprehensive.
He chose a degree in European studies and said Maastricht was a truly amazing and enriching experience. “It has had such an impact on the way I want to live my life. And my education cost a fraction of what it would have in the UK.”
But with Brexit on the horizon, the number of students going abroad has plummeted. Maastricht University, one of the biggest recruiters from the UK, says applications dropped a quarter this year, with only 132 students joining last autumn. It expects a further fall because of Brexit uncertainty.
And a British Council survey in 2017 found that the proportion of students considering studying abroad had dropped from 34% in 2015 to 18%. While the Brexit vote was mainly blamed, “this might also be due to existing barriers to uptake such as the fall in the value of sterling and perhaps increased safety concerns,” says a British Council spokeswoman.
The UK government recently said it would increase fees for EU studentsstudying in Britain, while UK students in the EU are likely to have to pay the high tuition fee charged to international students. This has led to calls for UK student loans to be made portable so young people can use them to study abroad.
The president of Maastricht University, Martin Paul, says that as the outcome of Brexit remains uncertain, “the way in which this impacts tuition fees for prospective British students is still unknown. Much of this depends on future agreements between the European Union and the United Kingdom.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), says that if, after Brexit, EU students studying in Britain no longer have access to UK government student loans of £9,000 a year, the spare loan pot should be used to encourage UK students to study abroad.
He says: “As Brits, we are very bad at learning foreign languages and travelling abroad to study and, after Brexit, our own universities could become less diverse. So it is important to encourage students to go abroad and show that we are still an outward-looking country.”
But is it true that study abroad makes students more international in their thinking and more attractive to employers? Yes, says Hussain, who returned to London after graduation to work for a finance company, then taught English in China, before returning to Maastricht for a £2,000 master’s degree in public policy analysis. He graduates this year and says that, while his study abroad has fuelled his enthusiasm for working across the globe, it also had drawbacks.
“Some companies really are looking for people who have experienced international environments,” he says. “In that way my degree enhanced my employability.” Other employers, he says, may be more reluctant to take on a graduate from a university they do not know.
Yasmin Bentley, 25, who graduated from Maastricht in 2015 with a 2:1 in liberal arts and science, agrees. “Studying abroad has opened many doors but at the same time closed a few from organisations that tend to recruit straight out of British universities,” she says.
Bentley, from Kent, is now working for a major charity in London, and says both her employers since graduating have been very positive about Maastricht. “They thought it was quite brave to do what I did at 18.”
However, she said, some prospective employers would make remarks such as “Did you go there because you could not get into a UK university, or because it was cheaper?”
Bentley says her motivation for going to Maastricht was the breadth of her degree – which allowed her to cover maths, physics and economics – rather than saving on fees.
“In the short term it felt more expensive as I wasn’t eligible for the loans and grants system in the UK. However, rent, tuition and general living costs were far cheaper. She graduated with an estimated €6,000 debt and, looking back, wouldn’t change a thing. “I made amazing friends from a range of countries and backgrounds,” she says.
Another UK student at Maastricht was Molly Francis Coleman, who also chose to study there because it offered a broader-based degree. She says she is much better off financially than her friends in the UK and has already repaid the £4,600 debt she graduated with in 2014.
After her initial European law degree she took further law qualifications in the UK and was called to the Bar in 2016. However, instead of working as a barrister, she opted to launch a specialist pram and nursery equipment business, Roma Prams, which imports from China and Europe.
Her European legal experience is invaluable, she says. “It has helped in dealing with international shipping laws, exclusivity contracts and the day-to-day running of the business and has given me a much wider contact base.”
Another student, Nason Ezhilchelvan from Northumberland, says the rise in UK tuition fees was the reason for studying abroad. Ezhilchelvan, 25, studied economics at Maastricht from 2013 to 2016 and went straight into a job as a hospital manager in the NHS, before moving to an advertising agency as a digital marketing executive.
“I don’t think studying abroad helped or hindered my job search, as Maastricht and the degree I did were both reputable,” he says. “It was certainly a good talking point in interviews, as it allowed me to talk about being outgoing and sociable.”
He says his total annual spend in Maastricht, including tuition fees and living costs, was roughly £9,000 – the same as the just the annual tuition fees in the UK.
Perhaps the only downside to studying abroad is that his friends are spread across the world, whereas colleagues who went to UK universities know more people, he says. “But some of my friends are here in London and I am still in touch with those who live abroad,” he says. “I don’t feel I missed out on anything.”
Meanwhile, Hussain, now completing his second stint at Maastricht, says he notices fewer British students in the city. “When I first decided to come here, it was as easy as applying for a university in the UK,” he says. “There was no visa process – nothing.
“Depending on what form of Brexit we get, future generations of students will find it much more difficult to experience different cultures and different ways of life,” he says. “It is a great shame.”
Source: The Guardian