If you want to escape our Island, why look further than across the channel?
Uni in Europe is a wide-open field, as ready for the taking as Napoleon and Hitler once believed. Its universities are fantastic, the price is right (free) and its culture is exquisite. Here's the low-down:
1. OK, you do need another language. This is the biggest hurdle by far, and the reason that the continent has not been more exploited by Brits in the past. If you're fresh out of school and want to start higher education in the traditional way, with a bachelor's degree, you'll struggle to find top quality European universities that will teach you in English.
In fact, you won't even be admitted without native language skills, since most unis require a language test as part of the admission process.
However, bear in mind the following qualifications:
a) Many universities offer a number of individual courses taught in English. These normally last a semester, and you need a couple of dozen to earn enough points for a full degree, but if you choose a lot of them then the majority of your education will be in English anyway.
Such courses are, of course, typically the ones that are available to exchange students. This does not help with admission, which still requires a native language test in most cases if you want to study full time.
b) Some universities will offer one or more full degree programs in English. At the University of Amsterdam, for example, you can currently choose an English-taught undergraduate degree in Business and Economics, but not anything else.
If you're looking to study a specific subject, then you might get lucky and find a uni somewhere that offers it in English, even if it's the only program of its kind. Sites such as www.studyportals.com could be useful for tracking down such courses.
One or two unis now offer quite a few degrees in English - Maastricht and Groningen are probably the best.
c) Masters courses and programs are much more commonly taught in English, but you'll need some higher education already under your belt to be eligible for them in most cases. See point 5, below.
d) The proportion of classes taught in English is gradually increasing. If you're still 14 or 15 and starting preparations early, then by the time you are applying there may well be many more options available to you in Europe. [EDIT: since writing this, there are already English-taught degrees popping up like daisies. New on our radar, for example, are the bachelors programs at Roskilde University, Denmark).
e) Even where you can't get an education without another language, you'll find that the vast majority of students and professors speak impressive English anyway. This is especially true of countries like Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian group.
Once you've reviewed the benefits of education in Europe, you may feel that it's worth putting in the effort to learn a new language. With an immersion program and some motivation, this is possibly achievable during a gap year.
An A level in a specific language is probably not enough on its own to get you to the required standard, depending on what the university you're applying to demands.
Some universities, particularly in Germany, offer their own language courses in the run-up to the start of the year, culminating with the language test needed for entry. Even if you don't quite pass the test, they may allow you to start your studies anyway, providing that you can pass it properly at the end of the first year.
If you can speak the local language, you'll almost certainly get a lot more out of your education abroad, and it can be a skill that you'll cherish for the rest of your life, not to mention the employment opportunities it will open up to you. It might also help you get part-time work in your country of choice while you're studying there.
2. It's cheap. Paying for university is a foreign concept in most of Europe. Most countries have minimal or no fees, and the continent as a whole continues to offer by far the best value for money, despite American unis’ higher rankings. A European education could very easily save you around £30,000 of debt.
Living costs can be high, it's true, but then life in the UK isn’t exactly a snip. US living costs are considerably lower, (depends on the relative strength of the dollar/euro against the pound), but you save a lot by using Ryanair (with their delightful and well ordered queuing system) instead of British Airways.
Speaking of which,
3. It's close. Europe has none of the long-haul flights, jet-lag or, mercifully, immigration problems that can bedevil one’s studies abroad. The beneficent EU is your friend here - students are free to move when and where they choose within its borders without any significant barriers or bureaucratic kerfuffle. As an international student, however, there are certain forms that you’ll need to fill in, so make sure that you've checked with your university that you've done everything right.
4. Admission is easy. Like their UK counterpart, many European university systems are struggling to cope with increasing numbers of applicants and general overcrowding. However, the situation is not nearly as dire as it is in Britain, and the majority of institutions remain able to offer places to anyone who applies, with fairly lenient standards in terms of school exam grades.
You'll need Bs or Cs at A Level to get into Europe's top unis, as opposed to the A*s many British and US institutions are now requiring. Plus, being a foreign student makes admission a lot easier in many places, since almost every uni is keen to boost its international credentials.
5. It's a long slog, at least for the locals. In the UK, the majority of students finish studying after a three-year bachelor degree. In the US, the degree takes four years or more. In most European countries, it's five. This is because very few students leave university without pursuing a master's degree as well, which adds two years on to your studies.
Until recently, many countries did not even have an official distinction between undergraduate and postgraduate courses, since almost everyone did both, but the Bologna process has brought things closer in line with the British system. Even so, European students and university officials still acknowledge only a very slight conceptual (or bureaucratic) difference between undergrad and postgrad programs. This means life changes very little when you move from one to the other - you won't suddenly find yourself in different social circles, using different admin procedures or living in different parts of the city.
European employers are apparently loath to hire anyone without a master's degree (hence the pressure to do all five years), but if you plan to return to Britain after uni then you could certainly think about doing so after the first three years, leaving your European comrades to push on for two more. British employers probably won't know the difference - most are used to hiring candidates with just a bachelor's, so if anything they'll be impressed that you studied overseas at all.
6. It's crowded. After Asia, Europe has the highest population density of any continent. How will this affect you?
One word: accommodation. You'll notice that when you move to a new city in Europe, people are packed to the rafters. Rooms can be cramped, poorly located and expensive.
In almost every university we visited, students said that decent accommodation was especially hard to come by in their locale.
Finding an acceptable place to stay will take hard work, patience and a willingness to settle for less than what you were hoping for.
Most universities will offer you little help unless you're an exchange student, but it's still a good idea to contact them, as they'll be able to point you in useful directions for where to look. Trawl the forums and classifieds, the Gumtrees and Craigslists, and keep checking every day.
Determined searching is generally rewarded. And whatever you do, don't fall for any internet con tricks - make sure you check that what you're being offered really exists and is really what it says on the blurb.