Put the words ‘student’ and ‘European’ together and what springs to mind? In the post-UKIP world perhaps few will now be openly stressing about UK universities over-run by EC students; perhaps older readers are thinking of 1968 Parisian rioters, or even dashing Heidelberg duellists. Politically correct bureaucrats may still be puzzling, since they are now told to refer to ‘learners’, but does anyone in our educational world think straight away of UK students going off to study on mainland Europe?
Why on earth not? Trailblazers Masstricht University were telling us all years ago that many of their BA and MA courses are taught wholly in English. You can study medicine, in English, in Valencia and Milan. Prague’s ancient Charles University teaches Economics in English – and medicine too. It’s not only in the USA that an English school-leaver can go, study abroad, learn in English and come out with a very good degree.
The staggering clincher (or so it seemed at the time, when GSA and HMC’s Universities Committee first were approached by Maastricht in 2009) was the money. A year’s tuition in the Netherlands will still cost only a modest €1,951 per annum; a year’s study at the Social Sciences Faculty in Prague costs around €10,000 including tuition fees and living costs. The truth is that most EC countries still massively subsidise Higher Education.
What fewer people seem to highlight, are the evident benefits of studying abroad in this famously global world (a tautology, of course, if ever there was one). A seminar in Maastricht or Leiden is likely to be composed of students from a dozen countries, the UK participant the only one speaking his or her mother tongue. Study is based on the civilised premise that other cultures have ways of viewing the world that should be listened to, and can be learned from: all very un-English.
So why, given conferences on ‘Going Dutch’ at Colfe’s and elsewhere, given tub-thumping by some convinced Heads, given all these obvious benefits, do only 4% of ISC-educated pupils choose to do their university studies abroad (and, worse still – pace the excellence of the US – over half of that 4% are by the way off to Ivy League American schools). ISC’s latest figures show fewer than 100 of the 38,000 or so independent school leavers off to the Netherlands to study.
It might be the slightly off-putting thought of being taught in English by someone whose second language it is. It might easily be the lack of classic campus night life (depressingly part of the UK Higher Education tradition, in which, be it said, our universities are entirely complicit). It might be that sneaking feeling that ‘it can’t really be as good as a Russell Group degree’.
Well, HMC and GSA’s Universities Committee were invited to Prague this last week. Yes, OK, Prague is nice in May, but we packed in three institutions in just over a day, and the Charles University (the third oldest university north of the Alps) is truly impressive. Whilst some Dutch universities seem relatively easy to get in to, Prague is pretty tough (entrance exams for Medicine, high Maths requirements for Economics), and the teaching is in small groups, but traditional. Learn, get tested, pass or redo ... in Medicine, dissect, learn, study: no problem-based learning for them! And although getting into Oxbridge or one of the very top universities is still, I guess, gold-standard to some, world rankings are kind to EU institutions. The Times Higher Education has Leiden, for example, 30th for medicine, with only four UK universities ahead (guess which!). Maastricht is 76th, ahead of all UK medical schools bar nine. Shanghai World Rankings put Prague’s Charles University in the 201-300 category, equal with Durham, Newcastle, QML, Exeter, Leicester, St Andrew’s and York and above Lancaster, Queen’s Belfast, Essex and Surrey. Of three Prague Nobel Laureates, you will definitely have heard of one: Einstein.
We ask ourselves, though, not often enough, one key question. What exactly IS the famous ‘student experience’? Is it a mechanistic get-a-2-1-and-a-job process? Is it really students union and living ninety minutes max from home? Or is there something too many of our young people are missing: interacting with and learning alongside young people from other countries with interesting minds and, dare one say, a different work ethic? Experiencing a community where students will be going to the four corners of the world to do interesting things. Learning, dare one say it, some words of another language.
Come on, students, or, if it will make you listen, ‘learners’. A third of the population of Prague is students. You could do medicine in Milan. Why do European Studies, for heavens’ sakes, anywhere other than Maastricht? Studying abroad will never suit everyone, probably not even most. But it’s got to suit more than a few hundred or so of our 40,000 school leavers, hasn’t it?