OECD statistics consistently show that the UK is the world’s second most popular study destination, with only the considerably larger US welcoming a greater number of international students. In the 2011/12 academic year, close to 400,000 international students were studying at UK universities, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). And over half of these students – 209,710 to be precise – were studying at graduate level.
In fact, according to Pat Killingley, the British Council’s Director of Higher Education, international students considerably outnumber domestic students at UK universities at graduate level, particularly in STEM subjects. And they come from all over the world, she adds: “You'll be part of a truly international community – you may find as many as 50 different nationalities on a single campus.”
So, the UK is obviously a destination which holds some cachet with international students. But why? Well, it's certainly not the world’s sunniest or most affordable place to study – but it is home to a large number of the world’s most prestigious universities.
No fewer than four UK universities feature in the top 10 of the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings®, with the University of Cambridge in 3rd place, UCL 4th, Imperial College London 5th and the University of Oxford 6th. An addition 14 UK universities rank among the world’s top 100, and many more within the top 500.
UK tuition fees and student funding
One of the key challenges for international students who aspire to study at a UK institution is the fees. There’s no escaping the fact that UK tuition fees are not the cheapest in the world. At graduate level, there are no caps on tuition fees, as there are at undergraduate level for domestic and EU students. So graduate-level fees vary from course to course, and university to university.
EU students pay the same as domestic students – which is around £4,000-8000 a year (around US$6,400-US$12,900), while those from outside the EU might be looking at anything from around £9,000-£18,000 (around US$14,500-US$29,000). This is just a rough guide, so do check how much your individual course is going to cost.
However, some assistance is available for UK tuition fees, and more so at graduate level compared to undergraduate. The UK is home to seven different discipline-specific nationalized research councils, which between them command a funding pot of £3 billion (US$4.8 billion). The Higher Education Funding Council for England, which as the name suggests is responsible for funding UK universities, also provides funding for research, and universities themselves often have their own pools of funding for research students.
“If you hope to get help with funding your studies, you need to do so before you leave your home Killingley advises. She also recommends looking at funding sources beyond the big research councils.
“There are many country-specific options available so it is worth checking out what is on offer where you live. The Education UK website has plenty of links and information. For example, you may be eligible for the British Chevening Scholarships, Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan (CSFP), the Department for International Development (DfID) Shared Scholarship Scheme, the UNESCO Fellowship Bank scheme, or a Royal Society Fellowship.”
It’s also worth noting, in terms of opportunity cost, that the UK offers shorter programs than many other leading study destinations. Master’s degrees tend to take no longer than a year, and you can complete a PhD in three if you’re really dedicated (and lucky).
Opportunities to work in the UK – or beyond
If you want to stay and work in the UK after completing your studies, you can apply for a ‘Tier 2’ visa if you have found a skilled profession. Recent changes mean that holders of doctoral degrees are given leave to remain for 12 months to find a highly skilled job or start a business, which can make this a bit easier. If you’re of an entrepreneurial bent, there’s also a new type of ‘Tier 1’ visa especially for those who want to start a business – but there’s only 1,000 available every year, so be sure your pitch is good one…
As well as opening up opportunities to work in the UK, a British degree will also serve you well in finding employment elsewhere. UK universities are held in high esteem among employers worldwide, says Killingley: “Top employers really value a UK degree; even in the United States, British Council research in 2011 found that one in six (17%) of US employers said they rank a degree earned in the UK degree to be higher than its US equivalent, and more than half consider them the same.”
The British Council is doing its part to further improve the prospects of graduates of UK universities, Killingley adds. “[We have] been working with major businesses to support international students employability in their home country. We have recently organized big careers fairs for both Chinese and Pakistani students, inviting companies to come to the UK and see what skills those students are developing, and discuss with students how they can be recruited once they leave the UK and return to their home countries.”
As well as the advantage of being able to list an internationally acknowledged university brand on your résumé, you’ll also have demonstrable proof that you can speak English to a high level. Though by no means the only useful language for an international career, English still very much predominates the academic and business worlds – and having spent time living and studying in an Anglophone nation will give you a considerable advantage.
This article is adapted from the QS Top Grad School Guide. Download your free copy here >