The Great Postgraduate Exodus

An introduction to international postgraduate education from West to East

Students are no longer home-bound: they’re ‘on the run’ and travelling in all possible directions – West, North, South, East and yes, Far East too. And they do so not on a whim to backpack and go on a long trip abroad but because a postgraduate degree beyond national borders has become an economic and social imperative. Markets have become increasingly interconnected and first-hand knowledge of other cultures and economic practices gives MA-degree holders an indispensable edge in the job hunt.

According to a 2013 survey by the Institute for the International Education of Students studying abroad is usually a defining moment in a young person’s life and has a long-lasting impact both professionally and personally. By choosing to leave your comfort zone, you choose to become more effective in a world market economy. And the good news is that there’s plenty to choose from. Clearly, education has established itself as an asset in countries that a while ago were not on the radar of aspiring foreign students. The US, the UK, France, Germany and Spain remain a favourite destination but there are some new options that are worth considering.

So how do countries compare? Here is a quick overview of the countries that rank in the top tier in terms of their educational value.

The US tops the chart but Canada is a fast learner

In 2013-2014 the US welcomed the highest number ever of undergraduate and graduate foreign students (819,644) according to the Institute of International Data. And this should come as no surprise to anyone, since America remains home to some of the most prestigious universities in the world, providing the greatest variety of higher education institutions (over 1,700 public and 2,500 private). Also, a US university diploma is applicable throughout the world and in a number of professional spheres, due to the practical angle of the education and the flexibility of the schools’ curriculum. The education pattern in Canada is very similar to that of its neighbour in terms of flexibility and practicality and the truth is that Canada is catching up pretty fast, securing itself a rightful place in the top tier. In the recently released report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Canada is officially 6th overall in terms of international student assessment. Its deep culture of cooperation and inclusiveness, as well as its focus on academic excellence, are among some of the country’s outlined advantages. And while Canada is not a challenger for America’s first place in terms of international student flow (more than 21% of all international students pack their cases for the ‘new land’), it has one joker up its sleeve. A degree is much more affordable financially and the country has lax visa regulations. As of 2008, all students who have completed a two-year Master’s degree automatically have the right to stay in the country and work for three years. They do not need to have a job lined up and are not restricted to working in a field linked to their studies, as they would be in America.

Old Europe’s new allure

Quite a few countries on the Old Continent are top choices for international students. Europe continues to set the standards for academic excellence, as it is a quick picker on new trends and technologies and maintains reasonable tuition fees.

The United Kingdom is the biggest competition for North America, with 12.2% of mobile students choosing to pursue their degree on the island (and about 9,000 of these international students come from the US). Most of the UK’s higher institutions are public. Or, in other words, they are free to invest and generate income as best suits them. But they also have to demonstrate excellence in research and teaching if they want to receive public funding (30-90%). So you are guaranteed top-notch education at an affordable price. Some of the best ranked UK institutions are certainly a substantial investment, but there are plenty of funding possibilities, including scholarships, grants, bursaries, fellowships, financial awards, loans. Also, there are a number of scholarship schemes offered by governments, charities and other organizations – it’s best to contact your local British Council office to dig out the relevant information. Students from the European Economic Area and Switzerland can study in Britain without a visa. One downside to UK education is that Britain has toughened its visa laws for non-EU citizens. Graduates used to have an automatic right to stay and work for two years. Now, they must find a sponsoring company or land a well-paid job. The visas available to students who want to start their own businesses are also scarce. And the UK government is uncompromising when it comes to implementing the new regulations. A curious story exemplifying these developments occurred in 2012, when London Metropolitan University was banned from accepting foreign students from outside the European Union. The restrictions lasted for one year and were introduced due to policy loopholes which led to immigrants seeking a backdoor into the country under the guise of international students. Of course, this is now history, but it goes to show that education in the UK comes with both great benefits and great responsibilities.

Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy and Spain are also a preferred option for international students. According to recent research, Germany is once again among the top 10 countries worldwide for job availability for Master’s graduates. This explains why about 6% of mobile students vow for higher education in Germany (most of them come from neighbouring European countries, but there is also a substantial number from the US and Australia). A Master’s degree from a German university gives you the opportunity to tap into one of the world’s most successful economies. Germany is dubbed the ‘Land of Ideas’ and it boasts a competitive free structure, an increasing number of Master’s delivered fully (or partly) in English and higher positions in international rankings. One other asset of German education is that it encourages mobility and many students can opt for various internships or exchange opportunities during their graduate studies. In 2005, a law was passed allowing German universities to charge tuition fees. Not all States opted to do so, and those that did have managed to maintain relatively low tuition fees. The components and their cost may vary between different universities and programmes but, whatever the cost of your Masters in Germany, there are various sources of funding available to support you.
France also remains a first choice for many international students – the majority of them come from the French colonies but also from Spain, the UK, the US, Russia. Anyone will tell you that France has a long history of academic excellence. After all, it ranks 4th in the world for the number of Nobel Prize Winners. Its academic institutions are well placed in the rankings and are an important element of European research and academia. Overall, Higher Education represents approximately 1.3% of the country’s GDP (87% of it from public funds) or the equivalent of roughly 11,000 Euros per student every year, while research spending represents 2% of the country’s GDP. France also boasts a larger number of smaller universities compared to other European countries. These tend to be more or less specialised and, for example, a medium-sized French city, such as Grenoble or Nancy, may have 2 or 3 universities (focused on science or social science), and also a number of specialised higher education establishments. In the Parisian region, there are 13 universities, covering the whole range of disciplines. Compared to its main rivals for postgraduate study abroad, France can be a very affordable option when it comes to its public schools. Master’s tuition fees in publicly held universities are set by the French Government, and are relatively low, although taxes in private institutions are as high as you might expect them to be in a Western European country with old traditions and high standards in business education.
Last year Switzerland hosted more than 44,400 students from abroad. This is not surprising, as the county is a meeting point of many different languages and religious views and is a welcoming place for newcomers. It, too, boasts extremely high academic standards and more than 100 Nobel Prize winners. Also, Swiss universities offer a variety of exchange programmes that will allow you to study and travel all over Europe and beyond. Switzerland's investment in education and research is among the highest of all OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. It excels in scientific research and in fields such as life sciences, agriculture, biology, environmental sciences and clinical medicine. Swiss performance in engineering, computer science, physics and chemistry is also impressive. Universities receive generous public funding in order to maintain quality facilities and teaching. Swiss teachers provide access to multi-lingual and multi-cultural study resources. Studies may be delivered in German, French, Italian or German and/or French depending on the region or university students wish to attend. Universities also offer an increasing number of English taught Master’s programmes. Tuition fees are relatively low compared to other European countries. Indeed, you can enrol at a Swiss University for as little as $1,500 a year and there are plenty of scholarships for international students (including the Swiss Excellence Scholarship for Foreign Students) that can help you towards tuition fees and living costs.

Italy is a magnet for postgraduate candidates. Studying in the home country of Leonardo Da Vinci, Dante and Raphael leaves you with a lasting impression. There is plenty to benefit from – great food, historic buildings, good weather and, last but not least, high-quality education that comes at an affordable price. A Master’s degree in Italy means studying in one of the most prestigious traditions of higher education in the world. Universities in Italy have existed for centuries and, in fact, the oldest university in the Western world is the University of Bologna, which was founded in 1088. Italian universities are competitive and you may have to sit an entrance exam to gain admission into an Italian university. If you are applying to an International or an Erasmus Programme you may skip the admission test, however if you’re aiming for a Master’s in economics, management, finance or business studies, you are likely to be asked for a GMAT or GRE, especially if the programme you’re applying to is in English. Also a good command of Italian is often required (unless the degree is in English) and many universities will ask for an Italian proficiency certificate. EU citizens are not required to have a visa. Tuition fees vary from university to university. However, there is a legal minimum fee for enrolment and maximum level for student contributions to costs and services, which cannot exceed 20% of state funding.

Spain boasts great multiculturalism and is a favourite spot with international students, especially those enrolled in Erasmus study programmes. There are more than 70 universities in Spain, most of which are supported by state funding. Spain also offers private universities. There are also thousands of undergraduate and postgraduate courses to choose from, covering a variety of fields. The Spanish teaching system offers a balance between theory and practice. Double degrees combining two study tracks are also available. Flexible university studies allow students to work part-time and take part in various cultural activities. Most universities in the country deliver their studies exclusively in Spanish. Only a few universities offer a limited number of English taught courses at undergraduate and postgraduate level. However, learning Spanish will give you an unbeatable advantage as this is the second most spoken language in the world. Besides, Spanish universities are famous for their foreign centres - you can choose between intensive summer courses, extensive semester courses, business courses or courses that offer Spanish language accreditation by the Spanish Ministry of Education (DELE).

Asia and Latin America are the forerunners

The Asian economy is blooming and Asia is slowly but surely becoming a major competitor in the international students market. “We have witnessed a very sudden rise in the number of international students for our MSc programs in engineering at HKUST just this current year alone,” says Prof Christopher Chao, associate dean at the University of Hong Kong. “In the fall of 2013-14, we are going to have more than 70 new international students from over 20 countries. With so many opportunities arising globally, it is no longer essential for students to go to the US, Canada, UK, Europe and Australia. My advice to them is to keep their eyes and options open. With the rise of the Asian economies there are increasingly more top universities in the region and improved career prospects.” Moreover, it turns out that Hong Kong also has one of the best immigration policies in the world for overseas students. Graduates of a local degree programme from overseas countries are guaranteed a visa to stay in Hong Kong after their graduation to look for a job.

Singapore is also quite attractive for foreign students (last year it hosted about 53,000 overseas students according to data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics). And it is not only the exotic location and running economy that appeal to students. Much more than a holiday destination, Singapore is a hub for academic excellence in South-East Asia. It boasts top-ranked universities (including 2 of its 5 publicly-funded universities in the world top 100 institutions), high standards of teaching and learning, world-renowned academics and state-of-the-art study/research facilities. Graduate courses in Singapore are taught in English which, as the mother tongue of many Singaporeans, is widely used. For a country of its size, the Singaporean Higher Education landscape is incredibly varied, including local universities and foreign institutions. Singapore has 6 local universities (5 public and 1 private) offering Master’s study programs. In addition to local universities, many of the world's leading foreign universities are offering graduate programmes in Singapore, either on their own or by collaboration with local universities (which will be the awarding institutions). Tuition fees for Master’s programmes in Singapore are relatively affordable, but the exact amount you pay will depend upon the university you apply to and the subject area you are working within. There are also some unique opportunities for fee subsidies in Singapore, offered through a system known as the 'service obligation'. In most cases, the fee you pay will be made up of several components, rather than being quoted as one whole sum of money.

India, too, boasts a booming economy which has brought about rapid growth in the number of universities and an even greater demand for overseas degrees from Indian candidates.  Brazil's economic rise has also been matched by the development of a sophisticated, modern university system. Brazilian universities dominate rankings in Latin America, with 17 Brazilian institutions in the Latin American top 50.

The world is up for the taking

There are plenty of higher education opportunities the world over. Europe remains a staunch supporter of traditions, but one that has embraced innovation as well. Canada and America continue to focus on curriculum flexibility and the practical angle of the education, whereas Asia offers a rather dynamic market economy that you can learn a great deal from. So assess your goals wisely and shoot straight at the bull’s-eye.  

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