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The choice for school leavers on the verge of going to university is wider today than it’s been at any point in history. While many still automatically assume they should go to a British university, dramatically increased numbers are now seriously considering the option of university in the USA or even further afield.

two graduatesThis development is one to be welcomed. Not least for British universities, which have suffered from too little competition. We would thus encourage all of you seriously to consider going abroad for your higher education years.

Why have overseas universities suddenly become so much more popular?

Higher tuition fees in the UK from 2012 have certainly been a factor, as suddenly studying abroad no longer appears such an expensive option. But it is down to far more than economics.

Demand for places at leading UK universities far outstrips the number of available places and students who hitherto would have felt confident of a place at Durham, Edinburgh, Exeter or similar now find the door slammed on them.

American universities in particular celebrate breadth of achievement far more than those in Britain, where only a perfunctory interest is shown in sporting or artistic prowess, or whether one held positions of responsibility and contributed to charitable activities.

Moreover, opportunities for developing these wider interests at American universities are often greater than in the cash-strapped British universities. Courses at American universities, too, are often far broader. This suits many undergraduates better – those who don’t want to immerse themselves in merely one or two subjects.

In particular, the growing numbers who study the IB diploma in the 6th form have acquired a taste for breadth of study, as well as for a less parochial approach.

The ratio of teachers to students can often be far better. The concerns we hear from British students about poor contact time with UK lecturers and a lack of genuine engagement with them is more than media scaremongering.

There’s a malaise in British universities, which have received too little money for far too long. Spending per head on students in American universities can be as much as twice that spent on British students.

The case for studying abroad then runs far wider. Many students will want to work abroad after they leave university. What an excellent strategy then to study abroad as an undergraduate, acclimatise oneself to another country, and make friendly contacts beyond the imagination of one’s friends from school who went off to Manchester, Oxford or Swansea.

At Wellington College, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of pupils considering or applying to American universities, with some venturing even further afield. Eight years ago, enquiries came from the occasional pupil with specific reasons, such as having a dual nationality passport and the attraction of going to their country of birth to complete their education.

This is no longer the case; about 15% of the pupil body are now applying to universities outside the UK. This will only increase in the years to come, given the enthusiasm among younger pupils to pursue a more international and global experience; 45% of our 15 year olds have declared an interest in going abroad for university.

It’s no surprise that the Fulbright Commission reports over a million visitors to their website each year; in the past five years, their USA College Day has tripled in attendance. Separately, the Fulbright Commission have partnered with a UK education charity, The Sutton Trust, on a programme to give bright state school students a taste of life at an American university. Now in its fifth year, the Sutton Trust US Programme is centred around a one-week summer school in the US, and to date has provided over 600 students with the opportunity to attend a one-week summer school in the US, with introductory events, and application support in the UK before and after. It is an excellent initiative that will spread the word further and increase the attractive proposition of studying abroad. 

The logistics of the application process for the US universities have become easier with increased experience and with more American universities joining the Common Application system, which is their equivalent to UCAS.

Some UK schools now offer an in-house course to help students prepare for the SAT, a US university entrance exam, and they employ experts in the area to provide additional support and advice.

While it is increasingly difficult to ascertain why some of our better candidates with stellar results have been rejected by UK universities, the emphasis on SAT scores and benchmark figures makes it easier to pinpoint the US universities that are appropriate to that particular student. With a number of generous financial aid packages available, US universities are becoming ever more economically attractive.

In a world that is increasingly global, an international undergraduate education will undoubtedly enhance enrichment and employability and give students the skill set that will prepare them for the demands to come. Studying abroad is an option that is worth taking seriously.

Dr Anthony Seldon, 13th Master, Wellington College
Matt Oakman, Deputy Head (Academic), Wellington College


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