By Thomas Dowling
A few hundred years ago it was common place for young aristocrats to complete their classical education with a 'Grand Tour' of Europe.
Literary luminaries such as Lord Byron made this serpentine journey from England's ringing cathedrals to the sound of the hezzan in Constantinople, taking in the 'glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome'—to quote Poe—along the way.
But today, we live in an age where new money careens through cyber veins that wrap and entangle the earth like creepers, while old wealth can collapse under the auspices—and risks—of globalization and it's interconnected world.
A jaunt around the environs of European citadels is no longer the preserve of the rich and well to do. Nor does it represent the culmination of the post-Recession students of tomorrow, but it is now, potentially, the start of their academic journey; and beyond into the world of employment.
I first graduated in 2006 when tuition fees were in the thousand pound range. A year later, as I embarked upon my Masters degree, they inflated to £3,000. Since 2010 and the establishment of the Coalition government, universities have been authorized to demand donatives of up to £9,000. The 'sky may well be the limit' for gifted graduates, but it also seems that hikes in fees are without ceilings; indeed, not long after the introduction and rapid acquisition of these new figures by universities did Oxbridge argue for greater autonomy in fixing their own fees to remain competitive with their American counterparts.
Given these new fiscal realities for prospective students and their families at a time when the UK economy is still struggling to re-energize itself, the Continent holds great allure, offering a myriad of opportunities and most importantly, fair tuition fees—all of which I'll come back to in a moment.
The question that is bound-up with these exorbitant fees is not only one of price or cost, but of value. Students, when they are going to pay for these expensive courses should ask the question: 'am I getting my money's worth?' And the way one might answer this is to try and assess what 'extra' the student of tomorrow is getting from the student of yesterday (say, when I started university a decade ago). Has the quality of teaching improved? Perhaps. Have the resources or opportunities increased for graduates? In a recession, I think not. What makes these degrees more valuable—and costly—than mine? I honestly struggle to answer that question.
Of course, most of us understand the re-organization of the education budget in 2010 which lead to the tuition rises, but is that enough of an argument? Is it OK to understand the rationale and accept it? Not anymore; not when Europe is calling.
If we make the debate about value, then the Continent offers so much more: cheaper fees, improving teaching standards, a diverse range of courses taught in English, travel possibilities, and, of course, the opportunity to develop language abilities—a transferable skill of immense application in the wider international world of work.
Europe in this sense offers a greater package and better value. Students don't have to get themselves into such great debts to earn a degree when the historic Maastricht University in the Netherlands offers courses from an agreeable €1,906 (about £1,600) a year. Alternatively, UK citizens can immerse themselves in the cultural marvels that Italian Bologna affords, or the cloisters of academia in Old Spain. If university is about getting a degree and having employment opportunities afterwards, then Europe presents new opportunities to the would-be graduate at a time when the employment market is saturated with BA grads all trying to promote a personal brand; a brand that many find is similar to a thousand others.
Next year, my brother will begin to decide on his academic career path. For years I have been whispering to him the merits beyond the Channel, and our parents are finally coming around to the idea of a Continental education. Aside from all the benefits I have highlighted in this short article (reflective after five years of travelling and working abroad), I lament at not having a realistic opportunity to do what my brother maybe coerced into exploring, affected, as I was, by societal expectations and affordable higher education costs (at the time).
So, as my brother contemplates the vibrancy of Barcelona, or the gothic monoliths of Leipzig, or, indeed, the more familial routes of a degree in cosmopolitan Bristol, or the ancient charms of York, my family are beset by a much simpler conundrum: Europe or Bust?
Thomas Dowling is a graduate of Ancient History (BA, MA) from the University of Bristol. He currently works as an English Language Teacher at the University of Tabuk, Saudi Arabia, where he is contemporaneously completing his second Masters degree in International Security (University of Leicester) and a course on The Emergence of the Modern Middle East (University of Tel Aviv).
More information on study in the European Union.