by Hugh O’Connell
Can a quarter-million of the world’s brightest students be wrong? That’s one estimate of the number of foreign students who forsake the comforts of home and brave the UK’s food and, for many, forbidding weather to get the postgraduate education they consider the key to a bright future in their homelands.
The British Council puts the total number of overseas students currently studying in Britain – at all academic levels – at nearly one million, with two-fifths of post-graduate students hailing from other countries. The British government’s increasing recognition of the value of this phenomenon to the British economy overall is likely to increase its efforts to attract these students away from competing institutions in other countries and to address the complex student-visa laws that most overseas students cite as the greatest – and often the only – disincentive to seeking graduate degrees in the UK.
Studying in the UK, rather than at comparable universities and colleges in other countries, clearly remains the first choice of the largest segment of the overseas student population.
The principle reason can be summed up in the single word the 23-year-old Uzbekistanian Tulkin Sultanov gave the BBC as his reason for pursuing advanced studies in the UK: “reputation.” Worldwide, UK universities are renowned for their high academic standards, cutting-edge educational facilities (particularly in the sciences, engineering and the arts), and broad range of offerings combined with the flexibility to accommodate individual student needs.
Like many other students who eventually go to the UK itself, Sultanov was educated in a British school in his homeland. As a result, he said, he knew both that British teaching was high-quality, that the professors at British universities had international reputations as leaders in their fields – and, crucially, that alumni of British universities enjoyed a level of professional success on return to their homeland that made them the envy of their generation.
UK universities and colleges are continuously evaluated by professional bodies to ensure that their teaching and research standards and their facilities are at the highest standards. The result has been the more important rating by the rest of the world, which at this point assumes that any British post-graduate education is top rank. Because standards are now known to be high at all levels, an unrivaled prestige attaches to a master’s or doctoral degree earned at a British university.
Of the half-million Chinese students studying abroad annually, some 50,000 have chose the UK as their academic destination of choice, together spending an estimated £550m a year on their UK educations. Twenty-two-year-old Lin Disheng, a Chinese student featured in another BBC story, followed his BS degree from Nottingham University (where he earned first-class honors in e-commerce and digital business) with a master’s degree programme at Oxford. Citing China’s rapid industrialisation and economic growth, he told the BBC, “Chinese young people like me want to make a contribution to this rapid process. That’s why I want to study In the UK – to learn better western technologies and experience the western culture and do the best I can.”
It goes without saying that the students who are accepted into British universities are the top students of their home countries’ top universities. Still, for most, what amplifies the education they received at home can be summed up in the three words independence, creativity and self-reliance. These are not only qualities they pick up at the personal level – although the mere process of adapting to, and then succeeding in, a culture often significantly unlike their own gives them a level of self-confidence they might well not even need in their homelands.
More to the point, a UK graduate education teaches foreign students a kind of independent thinking, creativity with ideas (most conspicuous in artistic disciplines but as evident in disciplines such as business and politics – “thinking outside the box” – and even science). Most foreign student have come from academic environments that have emphasized rote learning and, with the best of intentions, the dutiful regurgitation to their professors of the teachers’ own ideas. Only in an environment that both fosters and teachers ways of independent thinking do students learn how to generate their own ideas, propose and test original solutions to problems, and trust their own creative impulses.
British universities also offer well-recognised value for money. Undergraduate degree programmes, for example, are typically spread over three rather than four years, and most master’s degree programmes are designed to be completed in one year. This makes them highly cost-effective when compared to the longer time it takes to complete comparable courses of study in other countries, particularly in the US. Also, scholarships and other forms of financial aid make it possible to for many foreign students to enter institutions they would not be able to attend on their own or their families’ resources. Personal support in gaining access to such assistance, overseen by highly trained university administration staffs, helps many foreign students navigate that thicket of qualifications that sometimes discourage them from pursuing this vital source of financial help.
Furthermore, access to government-funded health care contributes greatly to the financial advantages of studying in the UK. Students in any full-time course in Scotland and in full-time courses lasting at least six months in England, Wales or Northern Ireland are entitled to free medical treatment from the British National Health Service.
Another advantage of studying in the UK is that some students can, if they must or wish, work while they are pursuing their degrees. Because they are from outside the EU, students who are registered in a course of study longer than six months can work as much as 20 hours a week during term time and full-time during holidays. Students who need to supplement their finances to live as well as study abroad will be happy to know that part-time work is easy to find. Others may find working part time a valuable way of learning more about the local culture outside the confines of academe.
The UK also offers a unique variety of graduate academic settings. In addition to the universities and colleges ensconced within Britain’s bustling, dynamic cities – which include far more places than London, though the capital is unrivaled for its academic, cultural, and other offerings – students can choose to study on purpose-built countryside campuses, often in areas of singular natural beauty as well. While some foreign students understandably want the programmes as well as the prestige of Britain’s famous, time-honored seats of higher education, others prefer the more modern, state-of-the-art universities that have sprung up throughout the country, sometimes with specific academic specialisations, sometimes offering a full range of post-graduate programmes.
Indeed, exposure to the larger culture is, though often overlooked during considerations of where to study abroad, one of the strongest reasons for choosing the UK as a place to pursue an advanced degree. Exploring the country beyond the university campus is sure to strengthen English skills and, more to the point, it does not require learning yet another language beyond the international language of English that has become the worldwide academic norm.
In addition to the native, local, and popular cultures, Britain offers some of the richest examples of Western culture to be found anywhere in Europe – and not just in London. Although London plays second fiddle to no other city in Europe in terms of its cultural offerings of all kinds, there are also significant cultural centres and events in other UK cities, such as Birmingham, which has one of the world’s greatest symphony orchestras, and Edinburgh, a city with an extraordinarily rich year-around cultural life and a summer festival of all the arts that is one of the world’s most renowned. British museums also are considered among the world’s finest.
For the more adventuresome, the rest of Europe is literally at the doorstep of people living in the UK. There are affordable ways to travel to the other countries of Europe – particularly for students – with resulting close, easy access to a broad array of other Western cultures, people, and traditions.
But even students who find study so demanding that it keeps them close to home and allows them little time for travel will be grateful to be “confined” to a country as famously beautiful as the UK. The British countryside, villages, and beaches are famous worldwide for their surpassing beauty. Travel within the country is inexpensive and fast, allowing most visiting students ample opportunities to explore the UK’s riches beyond its university walls.
Whatever your motives for choosing to study in the UK – and whatever you do to enhance your academic experience while there – you can be sure of one thing. When you return home, everyone will be impressed that you earned your degree in a country known throughout the world for the high quality of its educational offerings. And, with a British degree in your pocket (and brain), you’ll be in a prime position to compete for your country’s best jobs – and find the most satisfying way to take part in a globalised world you have yourself encountered.
Hugh O’Connell is a business owner and university lecturer. He is a director of Plan-it Consultants Limited, Thailand and UniRoute Limited, Hong Kong. Plan-it provides off line resources to students wishing to study overseas: www.planit.co.th/Study-Abroad/study-abroad.html. UniRoute offers online advice on www.uniroute.net and www.uniroute.net/study-abroad/index.htm. Currently Hugh resides in Thailand and is working towards his doctorate.