After a talk on attending university in America, Mazen, a pupil in his penultimate year at King Solomon Academy, a state school in central London, considers his options. The idea of studying overseas is “daunting”. But his interests embrace everything from African history to biology to music, and he likes the breadth of courses on offer at American universities. He thinks he will take the plunge. “Nothing in life comes without risk,” he concludes.
Few British students share his outlook. Among big Western countries, Britain has one of the lowest rates of students studying overseas. This caution is produced by a mixture of parochialism (few pupils master a foreign language at school) and superiority (universities at home are excellent)
But there are signs that Mazen’s attitude is becoming more common. Although there are no official statistics, data from international higher education authorities show that most destinations have seen a big increase in the number of British students in recent years. Of seven countries surveyed by The Economist, America, Canada, France, Germany and the Netherlands have all seen growth since 2010. Only Australia and Ireland have not.
There has also been a rise in the number going to America from poorer families. The Sutton Trust, a British education charity, runs a summer school programme at MIT and Yale for bright pupils from less well-off backgrounds. Since it was launched in 2012, 267 students have gone on to an American university, often taking advantage of generous scholarships. Indeed, the top American universities send representatives to Britain to spread word that, depending on family circumstances, their fees are not always as steep as the “sticker price” would imply.
Their efforts are helped by rising tuition fees in England and Wales, which have made foreign universities look like better value. In 2012 fees nearly trebled, to £9,000 ($14,000) a year. By contrast, students who go to Germany study free of charge. In the Netherlands, many have access to state benefits. (British students probably won’t qualify for these discounts after Brexit.) Even American universities can seem reasonable by comparison.