“It has to be China – it’s got the language of the future, and I’d be fluent!”; “I was only thinking about Germany, but if I studied in the Netherlands where they have loads of courses in English, I could visit Germany any time”; “I just love the US – it’s the only place I would go to university”.
Talking to high school and sixth-form students at The Student World Fair, which took place in London and Manchester earlier this month, the first thing you realise is just how global the world of higher education really is. For the mostly 15- and 16-year-olds attending, the event offered a chance to speak to representatives from more than 70 universities in 15 countries across the world – and, while many have a firm idea of where they hope to study, for others it is their first opportunity to find out more about heading overseas to study.
It is one of many international student recruitment fairs that take place all over the world each year – exhibitions where, in addition to the university stands, students can meet with peers considering overseas study, and also hear from experts on a range of practical issues such as applying for visas, accessing scholarships, and comparing tuition fee costs.
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Charlie, a year 12 student from London, is here with his mother, Karen. They are hoping to get a better idea of where in Europe might be best for an aspiring linguist. But it is not just about courses and costs – although those factors are, of course, important.
“I am looking mainly at France and Germany,” says Charlie. “With UK fees so high, Holland feels so much cheaper. But I also learned that there are no halls of residence at many universities in the Netherlands, so I’d be living more independently – I like that idea.”
It is these nuggets of information that many attendees at the exhibition see as hugely valuable. While the university experts on hand at the stands are, of course, equipped with information about the different degrees available, and how much you can expect to pay, speaking to representatives (and often alumni) face-to-face can give potential students the chance to ask questions that cannot be answered by a website or prospectus.
For Katy, from Essex, who is also here with her mother, the challenge is choosing between the UK and the US. She wants to study literature, or maybe law, and the opportunity to speak directly with universities is helping her to answer a number of questions.
“I am undecided, and it is good to come here and find out a bit more about how it all works,” she says. “It still seems more expensive to study in the US, but the price gap is definitely closing.”
Kristi Griem is director of international admission at one of the US institutions in attendance, Samford University. She has been to four Student World exhibitions, and says that about 20 to 30 UK students apply to the Alabama institution each year.
“Finance is always a topic people want to talk about,” she says. “What they don’t always realise is that they can apply for scholarships to study, which can bring the cost right down. There are also advantages to paying fees up front too – in England, with student loans, students can end up paying tens of thousands of pounds back when they are in their 50s.”
On the University College Cork stand, undergraduate admissions advisor, Sandra O’Herlihy, agrees that rising fees in other parts of the world – including England – have resulted in a spike in interest from students from outside Ireland. Fees at her institution are €3,165 a year.
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“We have a strategy to move more into the EU market, and coming to this type of fair is part of that,” she says. “The people coming to talk to us here are showing an interest in a whole range of subjects. Whereas previously we had a lot of people asking about our medicine courses, this year we are getting enquiries across a lot of disciplines.
“Coming here is definitely part of how students are finding out about what the different countries are like. I have had people here who are keen to move to Ireland even though they have never even been there before.”
In addition to universities in Europe and the US – traditionally very popular destinations for English-speaking overseas students – there was also a large presence from Chinese universities at this year’s event, with more than 30 universities from the world’s most populous country in attendance.
China is now the third most popular destination for students studying abroad, behind the US and the UK, and some students at the fair were keen to find out more about studying in the Far East.
China’s Ministry of Education has made it a target that the country should teach at least 500,000 international students by 2020, and research by the Institute of International Education suggests that it is on course to surpass that goal.
“I was surprised to see so many Chinese universities here, but it has given me something to think about,” said Kate, a year 11 student from Hertfordshire. “I have been able to pick up a lot of information from the universities here, but I would love to learn Chinese fluently and studying there seems a good way to work towards that.”
Whatever your reasons for wanting to study abroad, international recruitment fairs offer the chance to speak to dozens of universities in a single day to find out about some of the available options – without clocking up thousands of air miles, or a huge phone bill.
They are not the only way to get information, of course – and while there are often many universities exhibiting, they will still only represent a tiny proportion of the total number of institutions. However, if you go with an open mind and a list of questions that you need answers to, they are certainly a good way to access expertise without breaking the bank. The students I met were certainly enthused by what they had heard – and none of them regretted showing up to find out more.
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