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New access to study in Europe

British sixth-formers could find it easier than ever before to study on the Continent thanks to proposals by the UK admissions service.

UCAS is changing its rules so that universities from across the European Union can apply to be among the UCAS choices on offer to UK teenagers, provided they meet standards equivalent to UK universities.

From this summer, EU institutions may be joining the UK system by paying UCAS a joining fee reported by the Guardian to be “as much as £25,000”. The Guardian says that Maastricht University in the Netherlands is planning to use UCAS mailings to prospective students this summer, and others have also had discussions with Ucas. (A Maastricht University spokesperson told the paper they were not intending to become a full UCAS member for the time being, only to advertise their courses at this stage.)

With around 1000 courses on the Continent and in Scandinavia taught entirely in English, according to Eunicas (an admissions service for UK and Irish students wanting to study in mainland Europe), the appeal of studying in Europe is growing. The Independent says: “Already many courses in Scandinavia and the Netherlands are taught in English, and the Paris Saclay University in France is intending to join them.”

The cost of a degree in Europe may be substantially less than it is at home, too. Dutch universities like Maastrict charge £1500 a year compared with £9000 here; Germany has just scrapped university tuition fees.

However, English and Welsh students will not get loans or grants to study abroad – even in the EU – as things stand. The move by UCAS may, the Guardian says, put pressure on the Government to  fall in step with Scotland, where “under a two-year ‘portability pilot’ scheme launched this academic year, [students] can claim grants, bursaries and tuition fee loans for study at five approved continental universities.”

The Telegraph offers a stark warning that the move could lead to a major brain drain, with one in ten students “lured overseas” (This is the same newspaper that extolled the virtues, in this piece three weeks ago, of postgraduate study abroad at a time when masters’ fees are rising at home).

UK teenagers have always been able to apply to universities abroad, independently of UCAS, and this will not change. Last year year only 30,000 young Brits went to study abroad – 10,000 of them going to the United States – while more than half a million people from the UK and EU applied for university places in this country (a record number.)

The brain drain fear may not be entirely without foundation, though.

Since the 1970s China has sought to modernise its education, sending students abroad and building a huge and well-resourced infrastructure of universities at home. In 2012, 340,000 Chinese were studying abroad, a quarter of a million of them in the US. Around three million Chinese have studied degrees abroad since the 1970s.

Only a third of them have moved back home.

A report by the Economist in November 2014 said: “A study this year by a scholar at America’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education found that 85% of those who gained their doctorate in America in 2006 were still there in 2011.”

There could be many explanations for this. While the Chinese economy has blossomed, this has largely been in manufacturing and the white collar sectors in which graduates might expect to work have been slower to develop. Also, culture shock is a factor: such is the pace of development in China that graduates find the working environment back home has changed in the three or four years they have been away.

The steady, year-on-year increases in Chinese student admissions to US universities may now be slowing, according to the Wall Street Journal, as China’s investment pays off and domestic education standards improve.

The WSJ says: “The economic impact of the flat-lining of Chinese graduate students is already being felt because graduate students often come with their families and contribute significantly to the regional economy.”

The experience of US communities leaves them not wanting to lose their influx of foreign postgraduate students. It is reasonable to expect European communities, similarly, to fight to keep the benefits that new students and, over time, their families bring.

This is in contrast with the UK, where home secretary Theresa May’s proposal to force overseas students to return home after they graduate (a plan blocked in some pre-election jostling between her and chancellor George Osborne) would appear to be having the opposite effect. The tone of debate around immigration in this country, as we approach the general election and the main parties try not to have chunks bitten out of their vote by UKIP, is not likely to send out great peals of cheery welcome.

If the UK does suffer a brain drain as a result of the UCAS moves, it will be because the UK economy can’t give our EU-educated students something better to do when they graduate than they can find on the Continent, and because we fail to keep our universities competitive and world-class.

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Tue, 31 Jan 2017

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Nick was a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press and its sister weekly titles in Norfolk and Waveney, then served as Media Officer for North Norfolk District Council for 13 years. He now works as a writer and PR and media relations consultant. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, an associate member of the Chartered Management Institute and a member of East Anglian Writers.

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