Eight factors to consider when choosing an international university for your globally minded teen
Expat families often face difficult choices when their children reach educational milestones – at 11 when joining secondary education, at 16 when considering A Levels, International Baccalaureate Diploma and other qualifications, and at 18 when looking for suitable universities and further education colleges for tertiary education, writes Marianne Curphey.
Here are the considerations that a parent and young adult need to think through particularly when choosing to study at a university in a country where your family is not currently living.
1. THE REPUTATION OF THE UNIVERSITY
Many parents are keen for their children to have the kudos of a university that is world-renown and has a reputation for academic excellence.
The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2023 includes more than 1,600 universities across 99 countries and territories, making them the largest and most diverse university rankings to date.
Among the UK higher education institutions, eight UK universities are featured in the top 50 global rankings. Along with the University of Oxford, which has just been named the best university in the world by the World Academic Summit and the University of Cambridge, UK universities offer fantastic tertiary education opportunities. Parents need to be clear about the difference in the UK between The Russell Group, whose 24 members are world-class, research-intensive universities, and Metropolitan Universities, which tend to offer more vocational courses and accept lower grades.
In the US, the Forbes list of America’s top colleges lists Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as the best followed by Stanford University and University of California Berkley. The World University Rankings in 2022 placed the University of Oxford in the UK as its top global university, followed by the California Institute of Technology and Harvard University in third place. Two Chinese universities, Peking and Tsinghua, made the top 20 rankings in 2022.
2. THE STRUCTURE OF THE COURSE
Courses vary widely and your teen may have a clear idea of the subject they wish to cover, but they will also need to research the details and modular structure of the course. Some courses are more practical than others, but if you are looking for a high-ranking university degree, then those institutions that have research facilities are likely to score highest in the rankings and require more intense academic work.
Many modern degree level courses are structured in terms of modules, which may be examined by traditional exams or by assessed dissertations or other pieces of work over the three years. It is possible in some humanities courses to be examined almost completely by coursework rather than timed exams. Universities have also embedded coursework such as presenting or hosting seminars into the curriculum in order to help students develop transferable skills which will be useful in the workplace.
Medical and veterinary courses often require students to pass a high threshold for first year exams in order to continue into the second and third years. Generally speaking, a Bachelor degree runs for three years, while a Masters lasts one year.
3. POST-DEGREE EMPLOYABILITY
Having a degree from a prestigious university can certainly boost your career prospects.
These days, however, universities are aware that it is very expensive to study at degree level and know that students want more information and support in order to access top-level graduate roles when they leave
Universities are aware that accommodation is a particularly important issue for international students. This has led to a lot of purpose-built student flats close to many of the campuses.”
For this reason, top universities place a great deal of emphasis on post-degree employability. They offer add-ons such as language courses and careers help in order to help students stand out. Good universities will also have careers advisers and will incorporate transferable skills practice into the degree in order to prepare students for corporate life. Many offer work placements, either in the holidays or for one semester. It is also often possible to spend a year working at a partner university, or in industry as work experience. Sometimes this equates to an extra year of the degree, and sometimes it is incorporated into the three year undergraduate degree.
4. THE ACCOMMODATION & FACILITIES
Universities are aware that accommodation is a particularly important issue for international students. This has led to a lot of purpose-built student flats close to many of the campuses. In the UK, for example, many Russell Group universities guarantee that overseas students will be able to live in university-owned accommodation for the full length of their course. This promise is not always made to home students although many offer accommodation for first year students. Universities also recognise that students coming from abroad may not go home at every holiday between the semesters. For this reason, accommodation that is offered to foreign students tends to provide a longer lease (eg 42 weeks of the year) to allow for this.
In order to ensure that you qualify for the university-owned accommodation it is important to apply by the deadlines. In the UK this is September before term starts.
When considering accommodation think about what sort of accommodation you want – historic or modern? One will be atmospheric and architecturally interesting, but a more modern, purpose built accommodation block may be better designed for student use with more communal areas. Broadband and wi-fi are usually included in the cost of the room, and you will have the choice of catered halls or self-catered accommodation. If your teen chooses shared self-catered accommodation they may be required to clean their own bathroom and to help keep the communal areas clean and tidy as many university flats do not provide a cleaning or housekeeping service. They may also need to share laundry facilities.
In the UK, accommodation is usually of mixed gender – if this is an issue you can contact the university and ask what options they have available for single-sex accommodation.
Some rooms are ensuite, or even self-contained flats, but depending on your budget you may wish to opt for shared facilities and kitchens, as this will be cheaper. It is also a good way to meet people and to socialise. Catering facilities may be reduced over holiday periods, particularly Christmas, and this is something to bear in mind if you won’t be going home at those times.
Another important point to bear in mind is whether the university is campus-based or part of a city. Many universities are based on their own purpose-built campuses, with teaching, accommodation and leisure facilities onsite. Others are spread across different parts of the city and you may need to travel between departments and accommodation but you have the benefit of being in the heart of the city.
5. THE FEES & OVERALL COSTS
Tuition fees vary from one university to another and whether your family counts as domiciled in that jurisdiction.
For example, home students studying in the UK have their tuition fees capped at £9,250 but foreign students pay much more.
For example, Oxford University explains that course fees cover the provision of tuition, supervision, academic services and facilities by the University (including your department or faculty) and the colleges, but do not include residential or other living costs. If you are an EU national and do not live in the UK then you are likely to be charged fees as an overseas student.
This means your annual tuition fee will be much higher than a home student and could vary from £25,000 to £45,000 depending on the course and university you have chosen. You will not be eligible for a tuition fee loan from the UK government and will have to fund the fees upfront or in termly instalments. It can be cheaper to pay upfront as you may be able to negotiate a discount.
Your fee status is based upon where you usually live and your nationality, so it is very important to think about this before you apply. Some families choose to relocate back to their home country in the years leading up to their children’s tertiary education.
In the US it is very important to plan how you will fund your course and living expenses if you are attending as an international rather than a home student. In order to satisfy U.S. Immigration requirements you will need to show that you have budgeted and can afford your tuition fees and living costs for the course.
6. THE APPLICATION PROCESS
The university year starts at different times around the world and this is a particular consideration if you or your teen is planning to start an undergraduate degree in a different country.
In the UK the first academic semester starts in September, but in Australia the academic undergraduate year starts in March, and in the US the academic year typically starts in August. Bear in mind that you will need to allow time to move into your accommodation and complete any entry visa requirements if you are moving jurisdictions for study.
It is also important to check academic entry requirements, as many universities are flexible around secondary qualifications such as A Level exams in the UK and the European Baccalaureate diploma.
If you want to study at a UK university you will need to apply via the UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admission Service) website and all of the process can be done online. When you are researching your course you need to check whether the university requires additional tests and interview. For example, medical schools, veterinary courses and Oxford and Cambridge Universities require students to sit assessments in September and to attend interviews before being offered a place to study which is conditional on their exam results the following August. For US universities you may need to take a Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) or American College Testing (ACT) and to write an essay as part of your pre-application process.
7. YOUR PREDICTED GRADES
If you have already received your grades you can apply via UCAS in the UK. If, however, you are yet to take your exams you can apply via UCAS and may be offered a place based on you meeting the course requirement grades. The UCAS form officially has to be submitted by January 25, 2023 for entry into the academic year of September 2023. In practice most schools encourage their UK students to submit their application well before Christmas.
Grade offers differ between universities and courses, with Oxford and Cambridge requiring three A* grades for many courses, and Russell Group universities asking for three A grades.
For this reason, UK schools often advise students to have a first choice university with an aspirational grade goal, and an “insurance” university which requires lower grade attainments.
For international families, an important consideration is travel to and from home, or wherever the rest of the family is going to be based while the student is at university.”
If you fail to make the grades for both your first choice and your insurance university you may be able to find a place on a UK university course via Clearing. This takes place immediately after A Level results (which for the next cohort will be August 17, 2023). Postgraduate students can apply directly to the chosen university if they meet the set requirements.
It used to be the case that some UK universities would give prospective students unconditional offers if they made them their first choice. This was seen as demotivating by the UK government and is now strongly discouraged.
While your predicted or achieved grades are very important, they are only one part of the picture that universities build up. In the UK and US, admissions are also based on community involvement, leadership and distinction in extracurricular activities, and personal qualities and character. References from teachers and schools form part of the assessment process, as do a student’s own personal statement and non-academic interests and achievements.
8. YOUR TRAVEL COSTS
For international families, an important consideration is travel to and from home, or wherever the rest of the family is going to be based while the student is at university.
Studying abroad may mean extra costs such as flights, trains and taxis, and these are important to build into your overall budget. If the wider family is planning to come and help the student settle in, they may need to book accommodation near to the university for a week or two. This tends to book up quickly so it is a good idea to organise it as early as you can.
Other additional costs will include registering for student visas, allowing for the cost of phone calls home (although Skype and FaceTime are free with a broadband connection) and buying railcards or transport passes.
Health insurance is an important consideration wherever you are studying, as is insurance for your possessions, particularly laptops and phones. Fluctuating currency rates can make it more difficult for students to budget effectively, and they will need to set up a new bank account in the country where they are planning to study. You can save on travel costs by signing up to airline points and rewards cards and checking term dates in order to book flights home as early as possible in order to take advantage of discounted rates.
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