Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Pull Across the Pond

More British students than ever before are opting to take their university education State-side. As someone who has done exactly that, I can completely understand the motivations behind their choice. It isn't simply that we have grown up bombarded with US high schools and colleges on our TV and cinema screens, choosing to study in America appeals to British students for reasons other than the pursuit of red cups and keg parties. It is an investment in our future and a reaction against the rigidity and poor value for money we find entrenched in our own university system.

Tuition fees in England are set to triple from just over £3,000 a year to £9,000 a year from the beginning of the 2012 academic year. The US, which had previously been seen as financially unattractive to the majority of British students, with fees ranging from £12,000-£20,000, has increasingly become a more realistic option. Students who will already be saddled with a huge debt have little to dissuade them from a couple of extra thousand pounds if it means a higher quality of education and added bonus of the glamour and adventure to be found in studying abroad.

Personally, I did not commit to a full four years studying in the US. My time at the University of California, San Diego was done as a compulsory year abroad as part of my American Studies degree. It cost me the rather paltry sum of £1,500 in tuition fees, paid to my home university. That's not to say that the year was at all cheap. I had the misfortune to be out there during the 08-09 academic year, when fuel prices were sky high and altogether two transatlantic return flights cost in the region of £800. Then of course came living expenses, which in relatively expensive California came to about £10,000 for the year. I couldn't have in any realistic financial terms have spent any longer than a year out there. In many ways America is still an impossible dream for British students and staying home, even with the proposed hike in tuition fees, is still the better financial option.

However, the American university has many other strings to its bow and that is why in recent years applications by British students to American universities have increased dramatically. According to the BBC there are currently close to 9,000 British students studying in the US, which is the highest number to date. Perhaps British students find the flexibility of the American university much more appealing than the unaccommodating rigidity found at British institutions. When I was studying in the US, I found the concept of undeclared majors, majors and minors completely baffling. The idea that you could come to university still undecided about what course you wanted to take, with a mind boggling array of options open to you, was one I found incredibly liberating. Engineering and physics majors could take an Arabic or photography course on the side. A student who started college wanting to major in political science could have a change of heart and graduate as a marine biologist. This kind of flexibility and availability of education was completely new to me and something I found incredibly refreshing.

What's more, whereas at home I found myself languishing in the long hours between any academic activity, in the US my day was always packed. In the UK maybe if I was lucky I would have a lecture and a seminar two or three days a week. The earliest class would be a much bemoaned 9am and the latest would perhaps finish at 5pm. Yet in the US, I would be in at 8am every morning for an intensive hour long Spanish class, followed by three more hour and a half long lectures spread throughout the day with the latest ending at 8pm. I also felt myself being challenged, there were papers due in almost every week, midterms and final exams to busy myself with. At my home university we perhaps had an essay due in every few weeks and only had to sit exams in the summer. Although I complained about the rigours of the American system, I found myself learning quickly and with an increased work ethic.

In terms of value for money, I felt I got so much more from that single year spent studying in the US, than I did for the three other years I studied at home in the UK. More expensive it may be, but with options such as academic and sports scholarships, America is an understandably tempting option for British students. The question that this government faces, is that if they choose to dramatically increase tuition fees in this country so that they are almost equivalent to American college fees, then how are they going to ensure that education levels are to the same rigorous standards I encountered in the US? If they cannot better the standards of university education in the UK, then they will find many more bright, talented students taking their brains and money elsewhere.