Choosing where to study for a genuinely international experience can be a minefield. Here we offer tips about things to look for and questions to ask, as well as places to look for evidence of true internationalisation to help shortlist your university choices.
Many universities realise that internationalisation is the way forward. Unfortunately this isn’t always going to work in your favour. As a UK- or EU-based student you will often find that what’s portrayed as an ‘international’ university is rather one looking only to recruit from emerging markets outside the EU. There’s nothing at all wrong with a focus on these regions but you’ll need to look below the surface if you want a truly international higher education experience that meets your needs.
So, questions you need to ask, whether applying early or through the post-results ‘clearing’ process…
- Will I be able to study abroad as part of my degree? This revolves firstly around whether study abroad (such as Erasmus study at another European university, or an exchange between universities) is an approved part of a degree. Generally this means the university must have a formal agreement with any partner university you might be able to visit. This might, for example, be in a European country or further afield e.g. the USA or Canada. They’ll have to have compared what you could study at the partner with what you would study if you stayed, and these have to be similar. Some universities require a perfect match or you can’t go. Others have more flexibility and look at your overall learning. Either way you need to know does the reality meet the ‘potential’ to study abroad. And how much control you have over what you can study whilst abroad – part of the attraction is to study new subjects, so will this be possible?
- Will study abroad count for credit towards my degree? If there is a close or exact match between your ‘home’ and partner university you should get academic credit towards your degree. A UK degree offers 120 CATS (UK credits) per year (60 per semester) through a credit transfer scheme. This is equivalent in Europe, to 60 ECTS (European credits) for the full year. Each module (in Europe often called ‘course’) you take will get a certain number of UK credits, perhaps 15, 20 or 30 CATS, which is equivalent to a certain amount of study time. In European universities these modules are often smaller, and not just because every 10 CATS is worth 5 ECTS, so it would be important the number of module credits taken abroad matches the total in the UK.
- Would I be able to take a period of work experience abroad as part of my course, and would this give me credit towards my degree? Many universities offer a period of work experience, often called ‘placement’, and for some it counts towards the degree using credits to recognise the length of the placement. For others you may need to defer your studies for a year to take a year abroad for example, and receive no credit but some useful experience for the future. Work experience modules that attract credit may be short, e.g. to fit in a university break like Easter or summer, they may be a whole term or semester (perhaps 10 to 12 weeks) or the full year. Universities should support you finding a placement and if it attracts credit they’ll need to approve it – so ask ‘what sort of support will I get finding a placement?‘ If they have a dedicated team to do this, great – how many students get ‘placed’ each year, and how many fail to find a position?
- What are the cost implications if I work or study abroad while taking my degree? If you have to defer a year to work or study abroad you probably won’t get financial support such as a student loan, as it’s not technically part of your course, but you also won’t be paying university fees so seek advice from the university finance advisor. Of course if you’re working, earning and gaining experience this may be a ‘win-win-win’ situation but you need to be aware and plan accordingly. If study or work abroad is part of your course then you may get support in the form of a loan, you may need to pay fees to one or other university/partner, and quite possibly both. Consider the ‘investment value’ of an international experience. This isn’t only a financial decision it’s about shaping your future opportunities and employability. But you also need to think of practicalities – can you afford the financial ‘bottom-line’ of the experience, do you need financial help to make it happen, and is this help available?
- When can I work or study abroad while taking my degree? A year abroad is rather simpler in many ways, but there will usually be restrictions. First year is too early of course – you wouldn’t be ready to link class learning with real-world experience or, for example, business practice. Second year is commonly the time students will go abroad, whether for the year, a semester (half a year), or a term (roughly one third). In this case you’ve got the basics of your degree under your belt, and will be prepared to contribute to an employer’s organisation or to study at the next level but in a different location. UK universities are seldom keen to allow you to work or study abroad in your final year, so that they can control your education when most of your UK degree classification is decided. Vacation periods, especially in the era of so-called ‘fast track’ degrees, might be a time for working abroad (for credit or just experience) or studying abroad (to enhance your skills, knowledge and maybe even earn credit). But beware – will you need a rest after a hard year’s work at uni before moving to the next level? Is ‘fast-tracking’ your degree the right thing to do at this time in your life?
- If I go to work or study abroad, what practical support will I get? There is a host of things you’ll need to sort out and these can seem bewildering but aren’t insurmountable given the right help. Ask what sort of support you’ll get and from whom in terms of finding an employer or university abroad, choosing modules/courses linked to your international experience, finding accommodation, organising learning or employment contracts, arranging insurances, fulfilling any visa or immigration requirements, making travel plans. Universities often have specialist advisors in finance, accommodation, welfare as well as academic guidance tutors – will they help you and if so, how? Will their help be available to you while you’re away too?
- What support will I get to learn about the culture of the place I will study or work abroad, or to develop my language skills? Some universities abroad will teach in English, others their native language, and often a mix of the two which can open up new opportunities. Similarly, international employers will often operate in more than one language. This can give you some flexibility, but it is important you prepare for any international experience by developing some awareness of their culture and some understanding of their language and how it compares to yours. Are there parts of the degree that will help you develop these cultural skills and knowledge? Will they give you credit or are they outside of the course structure? Can they be achieved through the university within the time you have to get ready to study or work abroad, or will you need to look elsewhere? Unfortunately there’s been a trend for UK universities reducing or completely dropping language provision. Ask if this is the case, if there is language tuition or support available, how and where this happens. It’s not all about language skills, so don’t let this put you off, but some willingness to communicate in a second language goes a long way!
- Tell me about some students who have studied or worked abroad on the course I’m interested in taking. It comes down to whether it will really happen through the university or whether you need to look elsewhere for your international experience. For data protection reasons they won’t be able to put you in touch with past or current students directly, but maybe they have some examples to talk about, or case studies on their website. If they can’t tell you about specific examples, ask whether the university would allow you to explore international work experiences yourself, and again what sort of support you might get from the university.
- Finally, what are the university doing to offer a genuine international, intercultural experience for their students? This might include a wide cultural diversity amongst staff and students on your course and across the university, although this alone is not enough. What provisions outside the class are they offering to broaden students’ cultural awareness and experience? How are they engaging with international employers at home and abroad to enrich students’ opportunities? What universities abroad do they have partnerships with, in teaching, learning, exchange and not just research? What new international initiatives are in the pipeline, and will they be delivered in time for you to benefit?
Remember, choosing a university is a commitment to the next few years at least, over which time both you and the university itself will change. By asking the right questions you’ll be making an informed step into the future.
You’re starting an adventure, so give yourself the tools to navigate … whenever, and wherever you choose to go!