When studying abroad is the smart option


Excellent international reputations, low or even no tuition fees, and courses taught in English: the EU option may make sense for you

Irish students are so accustomed to competing for college places it seems strange that leading universities might be jockeying for their attention, but that is exactly what’s happening.

Although Ireland has more students than it does university places for them, Europe is experiencing an acute shortage of young people, because of low birth rates in many countries. As a result, an increasing number of EU third-level institutions, many of them very highly ranked, are offering undergraduate programmes taught exclusively through English.

It’s not all about numbers. Offering courses through English is a highly effective marketing tool for universities, and native English speakers are attractive applicants from colleges’ perspective.

Many students on the English-language programmes will not be native speakers, but the presence of native speakers on a course improves the quality of spoken English in the class very quickly. Added to that, the presence of students from other EU countries improves the international quotient, which helps universities when they are being assessed for global international rankings.

The Netherlands has been the primary driving force in all of this. It is currently the most popular destination, with highly ranked research universities and very good universities of applied sciences, which all offer growing portfolios of programmes taught through English.

Other countries are running to catch up, and nearly 800 undergraduate programmes taught through English are now available to Irish students on mainland Europe.

What about the expense?

Many of these excellent programmes have no, or very low, tuition fees thanks to the rules governing the European Union. If a university is offering a degree course to local students without charge, as in much of Scandinavia, or for a fixed low charge, as in many other countries in western Europe, then Irish students are also entitled to those terms.

There are no fees in the four Scandinavian countries and in some German states. Public-university fees in Belgium, Austria, Italy and Switzerland are between €500 and €1,500 a year.

Unfortunately, many of the medicine and veterinary programmes in EU universities are more expensive, at about €10,000 (though this can vary from country to country), as they are targeted at international students and are not available to their own nationals – similar to the way the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland operates.

Fees in the Netherlands are only €1,835 a year (for nonmedical or veterinary courses), and it is relatively easy to secure a loan or a grant from the Dutch government to pay them.

Irish students are taking note. Universities across the Continent, and farther afield, are reporting a significant increase in the number of applications from Irish students this year. Numbers are set to continue growing steeply in the coming years, partly because of the sharp increase in tuition fees in England, Irish students’ traditional alternative destination.

The study-abroad phenomenon started with students seeking alternative routes to careers in health science, particularly medicine, but students are increasingly enrolling on programmes in disciplines such as liberal arts, biosciences, environmental sciences, international law, politics, digital media and international business.

As students on these programmes begin to report on the quality of the courses, in terms of the teaching, the resources attached to most EU universities and the lifestyles that students enjoy, it looks as if Irish third-level colleges are going to find it progressively harder to attract the brightest students to their programmes.

On the other hand, this availability of college places could be a blessing in disguise for the Higher Education Authority as it grapples with the problem of accommodating the aspirations of the tens of thousands of additional Leaving Certificate students.

A demand for places elsewhere in the EU may relieve some of the pressure on the Irish system.

So what are the odds of getting a place if you apply? Rather than facing a CAO-style lottery, on the Continent it is accepted that every student who meets the minimum entry requirements has a right to attend the course of their choice. Entry requirements are therefore generally significantly lower than in Irish and UK universities. Entry to college often includes a mix of interview, a personal statement, references and sometimes grades.

There is a caveat, however. During a week at Maastricht University, in the Netherlands, last June I spoke to a number of Irish students studying there. Each of them made the point that although securing entry was far easier than in Ireland or the UK, retaining your place beyond first year was no easy task.

Problem-based learning is at the core of how programmes are delivered, and unless students commit themselves fully to their studies from day one they will very quickly find themselves getting their marching papers at the end of first year.

How to apply

Unfortunately for Irish students who are familiar with applying to a centralised office for all their third-level choices, the EU has no centralised admissions system.

This problem has been overcome somewhat through the development by a small Irish operation of a CAO-type application process, to cater for the growing interest from students in joining these programmes. Entitled Eunicas (European Universities Central Application Support Service), it supports students applying to up to eight programmes abroad.

Its website, eunicas.ie, has a complete database of all of the programmes taught through English in Europe. Registering costs €28, for which you have access to independent advice and expertise that will support your application to up to eight degree programmes across the Continent.

Students who used Eunicas for 2012 entry found the support and advice invaluable and reassuring. Particularly useful are the direct links it has with the universities.

The European experience What students say

Liz McAuley

University of Groningen, the Netherlands; international law

The beautiful old main building is right in the centre of town, and the faculty buildings and libraries are dotted around the place, a few minutes’ cycle down picturesque streets or over the canal. You get the impression that the entire town is the university campus: the streets, cafes and bars are filled with students from all over the world. As for the university itself, so far I have found the staff really nice and helpful, and the whole thing seems incredibly well organised. My course allows me study for an LLB in international rather than national law, which is why I chose it. I never wanted to study Irish law. Studying a subject like this as part of a class of students from so many vastly differing countries will be invaluable. Studying at home, I would not be with nearly as many other nationalities and would not be hearing as many different perspectives and points of view.

Alex Davey

Utrecht University, the Netherlands; liberal arts and sciences

I love the international atmosphere here, and it has been the best decision I have ever made to leave Ireland and study abroad. I’ve made friends from all over the world, and I learn as much in the classroom as I do from living with people from different cultures. It’s an experience that couldn’t be had by staying in Dublin. It’s tough, as you have to work consistently throughout, but I have learned a lot more from studying this way, and it’s lot less stressful in the long run.

Emily O’Riordan

Saxion University of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands; physiotherapy

The programme really goes beyond my expectations. I love it so much. I honestly thought it would take me so long to settle in, but it only took about a month. Before coming over here I was only motivated by the course, but there’s so much more than that. I’ve made really good friends from all over the world that I know I’ll have for the rest of my life. Studying abroad for me was a terrifying decision to make. I now realise it’s the best decision I ever made. I know it’ll be the best four years of my life.

Christopher Cornelissen

Szent Istvan University, Budapest, Hungary; veterinary science

I have found my time here at Szent Istvan University faculty of veterinary science very enjoyable and rewarding. The lecturers are very helpful and enthusiastic. They help us with our studies and in all other aspects needed to achieve our goal of becoming veterinarians. At times it has been challenging, but with hard work and sheer determination it is possible. I feel confident that the knowledge I have gained, both theoretically and practically, will allow me and future students to become exceptional veterinarians and to work side by side with colleagues in Ireland as equals.

What's available? The courses and the countries


Lund University: international development, fine art, geography, maths


Laurea UAS, Helsinki: nursing.

Satakunta UAS, Pori: physiotherapy


Groningen: psychology, international law, physics, business and economics, medicine, international relations.

Utrecht: liberal arts and sciences, pharmaceutical sciences, economics.

Leiden: international relations, liberal arts and sciences, psychology


Skema, Nice: business, marketing, aeronautical science


U Milan: medicine.

Bocconi, Milan: business and economics


U Malta: medicine, psychology, physiotherapy, nursing


U Carlos III, Madrid: aerospace engineering, biomedical engineering, business.

U Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona: business and economics


Leipzig U: physics.

Berlin School Economics and Law: business.


Krems UAS: tourism management, medical and pharmaceutical biotechnology


Charles University, Prague: medicine, dentistry, pharmacy.

Brno UVPS: veterinary science, pharmacy


Semmelweis U, Budapest: medicine.

U Szeged: medicine, pharmacy


Medical University Sofia: medicine


University of Zagreb: medicine

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