The Sunday Times Magazine: Uni Abroad

 

Doing the continental

Why rack up huge debts at a British university when a degree at one of Europe’s top institutions can be yours for a snip?

Katie Glass Published: 25 March 2012

Students bounce to the Eurobeats of MaastrichtStudents bounce to the Eurobeats of Maastricht (Gareth Phillips)

Down a quiet cobbled street that peels with church bells, in one of the oldest and most conservative towns in the Netherlands, there is an ornate street sign. This Sunday it has a red traffic cone planted on top of it. Well-dressed Dutch families look up, horrified. It can only mean one thing: the British students have arrived.

Why? British university fees have soared to up to £9,000 a year (with the exception of the Scottish universities, where you can study for free ­— as long as you’re Scottish). This year, Ucas has seen applications from British students fall by 8.7%. Last year a record 22,000 British students were studying degrees abroad. Many picked universities in America, South Africa or Australia, where the language is English and the weather is good. But a few thriftier ones had a better idea: in Europe, just a budget-airline flight or Eurostar ride away, some universities teach in English and offer cheap fees. Thus, the EasyJet degree was born.

 

Why graduate £30,000 in debt after three years when you could study for a fraction of the cost in Holland? At Maastricht University, in particular, the number of Brits is booming. Its intake has more than doubled from 84 British students in 2009 to 191 in 2011. This year, it’s expecting more than 400 British teenagers to apply. The university faculty is thrilled. “We love David Cameron,” says Dr Teun Dekker, vice-dean of Maastricht’s University College. “Cameron has done a wonderful thing for European integration because he’s driving the students to think about alternatives.”

Why graduate £30,000 in debt after three years when you could study for a fraction of the cost in Holland?

One British student who is ahead of the game is Luc Delany, 30, who graduated with a BA in European studies in 2005, and now works on European policy for Facebook in London. “It’s real practical training to do a real job — instead of sitting at the back of a lecture hall playing Angry Birds,” he says. “Maastricht is the new kid on the block, but it’s very much contending for the title of the best European university.”

Paul O’Hagan, 32, graduated from Maastricht in 2007 with an MA in European studies, and now works in public affairs in London for Business for New Europe. “They take a more progressive approach to teaching — everything’s very practical; working in groups, debating, lobbying. People haven’t heard much about Maastricht in Britain, but in Brussels it’s widely known and respected.”

The town looks like a Dutch Brideshead — a lamp-lit lattice of cobbled streets and shuttered houses straddling the Meuse river. The centre is crammed with boutique hotels, private galleries, designer clothes shops and smart restaurants. The university’s colleges are dotted around town in modernised convents, mansions and churches.

You can spot the prospective British students here for the open day a mile off. The boys have hair like One Direction; the dads are muttering about affordable fees. I find Callum Bramley and his family on a street corner, looking lost. Callum’s granddad saw a TV documentary about Maastricht University “and it said it was cheaper”, Callum explains. “I think it’s fantastic. What an opportunity,” says Callum’s dad.

Maastricht’s fees are just £1,431 a year. Living costs are low (around €250/£209 a month for a flat; around €4/£3.30 for a beer) and if students take on eight hours’ paid work a week, the local Dutch authority gives them a €266 (£222)-a-month grant (for being “an economically productive non-native”). At this rate, Callum could graduate debt-free. His mum, Janet, hopes Maastricht will give him “an edge. Show he’s got initiative and teach him a couple of languages”. Does Callum plan to learn Dutch? He looks nervous. “Possibly.”

Jenny Toodgood, from London, is here with Sam, her 17-year-old son. Sam wasn’t bothered about studying abroad, but now they’ve come here his enthusiasm has grown. He’s attracted by Maastricht’s international reputation. “I’m sick of England — it’s full of English people,” he declares. “I consider myself more European.”

Maastricht University’s president is Professor Martin Paul, a huge Italian man. Why should a British student come to Maastricht? “Education, education, education,” he booms. “From day one you’re trained in problem-solving and multi-tasking.”

Maastricht uses an innovative “problem-based learning” technique: all subject lessons are posed as a question, which students work through as a group to solve. It’s a style that fits with the way modern companies work, which is why Google and Facebook recruit heavily here. “You get an education that makes you fit for the international job market,” says Paul. Within six months of leaving, 90% of Maastricht graduates land a decent job. “A job in their field,” stresses Paul. “Not McDonald’s. Not cab drivers.” Martin points out that Maastricht has taught courses in English since the 1980s, and now runs 10 English-taught bachelor programmes: European studies; European public health; arts and culture; two liberal arts and science programmes; European law; econometrics and operations research; economics and business economics; international business, and “knowledge engineering” (computer science).

“You haven’t even mentioned fees,” I say to Paul. He raises an eyebrow: “Fees are not important for us.” He’s keen to stress that this is a serious institute that wants serious students. “If you’re just in for the low fees and are not attracted by any of the other things we offer, go to another place,” he says sternly. “There are easier ways to get a degree.

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