Breaking boundaries: Opting for a Masters degree abroad

Irish degrees can be costly and students are looking overseas for fresh opportunities

Choosing to pursue a Masters degree is by no means any small task. The vast majority of those who undertake such a degree generally do so to give themselves better opportunities for employment in the future.

However, Masters degrees in Ireland can be very costly, with universities charging between €4,000 and €12,000, depending on the course, considerably more than the €3,000 contribution charge for undergraduate fees. When rent and living expenses are factored into this, getting a Masters in Ireland could set you back quite a bit indeed.

Many Irish students are instead opting to study for Masters degrees outside of Ireland, due in no small part to the increasing number of English-language courses offered throughout Europe. In 2014, the number of English-language Bachelors and Masters courses had exceeded 8,000, more than tripling over the previous seven years.

Drawing simple comparisons between choosing to study at home or abroad or at home is not so easily done. The fees, cost of living, standard of the degree, reputation of the university and length of the course can contribute to a student’s choosing of where to study.


The application process varies from country to country, with deadlines ranging from December or January until April or May, to begin studying in September. Students are required to have their transcripts from their undergraduate degree, and from here how the application proceeds depends on the university. For most a personal statement is required, for some the application can be submitted almost entirely online, while others insist on an interview, whether that be via Skype or in person.

Most Masters courses in Ireland are 12 months long, although those involving a placement or more practical elements are sometimes two years. Those abroad can vary from nine months in length, to 12, 18 or 24 months.

‘The weather was the cherry on top’

Philip King from Co Mayo, is studying a Masters in Economics and Finance at the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics, applying for his Masters in November 2016 while still in his final year of his undergraduate degree. He was accepted in early 2017, and in September, moved to Spain to begin the intensive nine-month Masters programme.

When choosing where to study, the reputation of the college and the reputation of the course and its content were of the utmost importance to King. “I felt the course in Barcelona was superior to anything available in Ireland in my field. The reputation quality and the quality of the researchers (and their name recognition) are higher.

“The specific college led the decision. I felt it was of a very high quality and undergrad lecturers agreed with that when asked for advice. Barcelona also had a reputation as a very nice place to live. And it didn’t hurt that the cost of living would be lower than in Dublin. The weather was the cherry on top.”

The cost of living in Barcelona appears to be lower in all areas, according to King. “Though locals complain about the property market in Barcelona, there is a lot of value to be found for Irish students on rent compared to Dublin. I’m paying roughly the same as I did in Dublin, but for a far better location. I’m essentially living on College Green for Phibsboro prices (where I lived in Dublin). Pretty much everything else is cheaper, I think.”

While the cost of living is lower in Barcelona, the fee to study at the prestigious university – €16,000 – is in fact more than that of a comparable degree in Ireland, around €10,000. However King felt that the higher standard of the masters in Barcelona and the lower cost of living were a reasonable trade off.

The experience as a whole is one that King would recommend to anyone considering studying abroad. “On a personal level, the experience of different cultures and friendships with a diverse, international group was well worth it.”

On an academic level, he acknowledges, it often doesn’t matter where you study. “With post-graduate studies, for me anyway, the vast majority of your time is spent in a room in the library. So you could argue that studying abroad or at home makes little difference. For me, it’s the people you study with that really matter. And I think I’ve found a more diverse group in Barcelona than I would have found in Dublin.”

‘Building networks is extremely important’

Alannah McCartney from Co. Louth is studying an engineering Masters of Science in Sustainable Cities at Aalborg University in Copenhagen, a two-year programme. It was after her Erasmus year spent in Prague that she came to see how helpful it could be to study elsewhere. "I realised how many educational opportunities were available to me outside of Ireland. Building networks with other students, researchers and professors in different institutions is extremely important to me."

When choosing where to study for her Masters, McCartney came to the conclusion early on that it would be not be wise for her to stay in Ireland to study. “I felt that this was a relatively new field of study in Ireland, and there wasn’t much out there yet. As Copenhagen is quite a progressive city when it comes to sustainability, it was the natural choice for me to come here and study.”

Although Nordic countries have a reputation for being very expensive, McCartney has discovered that the cost of rent is comparable to that in Dublin. “Other expenses such as groceries and eating out can be expensive, almost €10 for two coffees in the centre. However, like Dublin, I think it’s about knowing where the tourist traps are and how to avoid being ripped off.”

While the cost of living can be relatively high, there is plenty of government assistance available for students. There are no fees for EU students to study in Denmark, and all EU or EEA citizens enrolled in a Danish university with a part-time job are entitled to apply for a government grant. This grant can cover most rents and even begin to help with some living expenses too. “The only challenge is finding a job without speaking Danish. Lucky for the Irish, there are plenty of Irish bars wherever you go!”

Although she had some initial difficulties settling, and was slightly overwhelmed with the amount of bureaucracy, McCartney is confident that studying abroad was the correct option for her, and will be of benefit in the future. “We live in a time where the job market is so uncertain for many new graduates. I feel it’s important to expand your horizons, make your CV stand out amongst all the others and I think studying, living and working abroad shows how you can adapt quickly, be independent and work through problems as they arise.”

‘Showing I am willing to stand will stand to me’

Lorna Gill from Clontarf in Dublin is studying an MSc in Conservation and Biodiversity in Exeter University's Penryn campus in Cornwall for 12 months. No course at any Irish university appealed to her, and upon a recommendation from a lecturer she applied, and was accepted to Exeter. "I think for my field especially, showing that I am willing to travel or move will stand to me. Exeter is very highly regarded worldwide within my field. It has a strong research component to it which is also very relevant to my field."

While the cost of the course is relatively high, at £11,900, increasing to £13,500 from next year, the cost of living is very low. Gill pays just £131 per month in rent.

The only disadvantage that Gill has encountered thus far is a lack of infrastructure in Cornwall, especially when compared to Dublin or other major European cities. In a small university town this doesn’t cause many difficulties day to day, except when she is looking to come home. “So far the only disadvantage is how limited public transport is in Cornwall, which makes getting to the airport to fly home difficult.”