width=270It's that time of year again. School leavers around the UK have received their A-level results; results that could set them up for life. Thousands of students up and down the country are now struggling to find a university place through Clearing. But this year, the competition for places at top universities is even more intense. Danny Byrne takes a closer look.

The UK higher education system is facing a supply and demand crisis: government funding cuts have put the squeeze on university places at a time when applications have soared; UK universities are facing fines for over-recruiting; and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) predicts places on offer during Clearing are likely to be few and far between. 

Several top universities, including Edinburgh, Warwick, LSE and Bristol, have announced they are already full up. This means that many students whose A-level grades fail to match their conditional offers, or who did not receive an offer during the initial application process, risk missing out on a place at university altogether. 

At a time when the UK system is unable to accommodate the number of students leaving school with the qualifications and expectation of attending university, why aren't more UK students utilizing the higher education options open to them around the world?   

Studying abroad

It is estimated that over three million students worldwide study abroad, and according to the Atlas of Student Mobility, 415, 585 international students are currently enrolled at UK universities. However, comparatively few British students head in the opposite direction. A 2010 report by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills estimates that around 20,000 UK students are studying abroad worldwide, with the US hosting the largest number  (8,568), followed by France (2,570), Germany (1,949), Denmark (1,584) and Australia (1,545).

On face value the reasons for UK students' apparent reluctance to study overseas are relatively straightforward. The UK's historically strong economy means it is a traditional importer rather than exporter of both students and labour; UK universities have benefitted from attracting many high-quality international students and academics, driving standards up; and universities such as Oxford and Cambridge have long-established reputations for academic excellence, performing strongly in international rankings. In the 2009 QS World University RankingsTM, for example, UCL (4) and Imperial College (5=) joined Cambridge (2) and Oxford (5=) inside the top ten.

However, with record numbers of applicants competing for fewer places, many UK students may now find themselves in a position where they have to reassess these reservations. And with the threat of rises in fees (or indeed a new graduate tax) at UK universities, alongside an increasingly global workplace and a saturated graduate job market, there are reasons to believe that this traditional reluctance to consider studying abroad may not be around for too much longer.

As the QS World University Rankings® demonstrate, there are many instances in which studying at a comparably prestigious institution elsewhere in the EU would save UK students several thousand pounds. With recent reports that British students expect to graduate with £25,000 worth of debt, the idea of receiving a comparable education in countries such as France, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark at a fraction of the cost could be particularly appealing.

Although the UK continues to outperform other countries in Europe overall in the annual QS World University RankingsTM, there are many institutions across the continent that outperform leading UK universities in particular subject areas. One example in the 2009 QS World University RankingsTM is that of the University of Amsterdam. Ranked 32 in the world for social sciences (as well as 49 overall), it places above all but four UK universities - Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and LSE.

What's more, the university is offering a BA in economics and finance taught entirely in English, with tuition fees of EU $1,672 per year. This represents a potential saving of £5,500 over three years when compared to the annual fees of £3,225 paid by the majority of undergraduate students in the UK.

With a saturated graduate job market, the language skills acquired through studying abroad - as well as the increased cultural awareness, life experience and the initiative demonstrated by doing so - are increasingly a way of differentiating oneself from the estimated 70 similarly qualified graduates now competing for every job. What's more, a portfolio of international contacts gained as a student is a shrewd investment for the future.

It may take more time to convince UK students of the advantages of studying abroad in numbers comparable to those that already flock to the UK for their undergraduate degrees. However, for the many UK school-leavers who will miss out on a place at university this year, studying abroad could be a cost-effective solution carrying real long-term benefits.