Push aside international placements and the like for a minute… You’d think it would be rather tricky to study abroad for the entirety of a degree programme.

Truth be told, being an international student can be a potential minefield – you’ve got to think about visas and local languages, cultures and the various academic requirements that you’ve got to fulfil to stay.  All of this is likely to be different to what you’re used to in the UK, so you can forgive the idea that not many students go for it.

Well, we say that, but a recent report by the BBC certain surprised me with news about the number of students who were heading the United States to study.  Long considered the refuge of the rich, powerful and generally clued-up, the US is a rather unregulated market with so many different options available, yet over 10,000 of us are now studying over there in various places.  This number is up 8% on last year and, though represents a relatively small percentage of international students in the USA, makes for a significant number of young people who take their aspirations to the ‘land of the free.’
The top 5 destinations for students from the UK were as follows:

1. Harvard

2. Columbia

3. New York University

4. University of California, Berkeley

5. Yale

Despite massive tuition fees that are entirely reflective of university policy, rather than government regulation, the United States offers a bewildering choice of options – ranging from public and state universities to the exclusive private universities that have earned such a famous reputation all over the world.  Think Harvard, Yale and you get the idea.

It’s rather surprising that some students are happy to shell out some $50,000 a year for the top places in the US – and indeed the world – when there are apparently world-class options here back at home, all at a cheaper rate.  At the time of writing, the £9,000 a year tuition fees here in the UK would equate to just over $14,000 a year.

If you believe the World University League Tables that get published by various companies each year, the top spots are very tightly contested between the usual mix of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale – and recently MIT also.  If they’re all so close, why are UK students considering paying over 3.5 times as much a year for their education for something that could be considered only marginally better, according to various sets of results?

If we’re looking at the very best universities in the world, we’re lead to assume that we’re also talking about the best British students who have achieved incredible things already in their education.  Let’s therefore look at the top institutions – is there something that the Oxbridge elite are missing out on that the United States can provide?

Are we now at that stage where the job market is that fierce that even having Oxford/Cambridge/LSE on your CV isn’t going to cut it?  All three of them have world-class academics teaching, just the same as Harvard or MIT, so why would the name be anything?

I suspect that some employers out there are thinking outside the box and want something a little different from the ‘usual’ crop of elite students coming out of the UK universities.  Having the name ‘Harvard’ on an application must carry an awfully large weight, that I can understand.  I wonder if it could be that employers are finding these names exotic and exciting – do they give the company something unique or a different perspective on whatever they’ve learnt?

Possibly – outstanding teaching is what gives the best in the world their reputation and excellence doesn’t have to also mean conventional too.  Maybe then, it’s not just teaching excellence – maybe it’s also the new ideas and theories that come from the other side of the Atlantic that makes people go.  Logically, if there was no benefit to your employment prospects, students would heed the warnings of past graduates and not go – especially if it meant unnecessary expense.

US universities – along with some Dutch institutions – have been holding events in the UK to help attract numbers, something that the government has hardly turned their nose up to.  In recent times, there has also been the beginning of a push to get British students in India – 25,000 of them, in fact.

The bigger question here I suppose is about why the government seems keen to not only tolerate increasing numbers of students to travel abroad but to also encourage projects.  I understand why India might be an appealing option – there is great trade potential there, after all, but our relationship with the USA is already greatly developed and ultimately you’d think that, as it ultimately helps our barely-recovering economy, we’d be trying to get more students into our own universities.

Surely it can’t be something as ridiculous as ‘we haven’t got the space here for everyone, so get the best going elsewhere’, can it?  Surely the best talent should remain here in the UK, if you follow the nationalist view of education and talent.  Even if not, it would be a shame to see such people leave.

OK, so I support everyone’s right to choose where they study and what sort of path they follow.  However, the government is watching talent leave and seems to be finding clever ways to let people go.  In the case of India, it’s obvious – in the case of all these recruitment events, it’s just passively watching as people get more options.  You’d think students would be offered grants and scholarships to stay and, to be fair, the very brightest in the country can get something privately arranged with the best places.   However, the government is hardly screaming for them to stay themselves.

I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but it’s just rather confusing.  The best students are being let go very easily.

Are we not an attractive proposition for our students any more, or is there something abroad that’s so special?  I suspect a bit of both.


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A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.