College on the Continent: ‘It’s less about grades or points’

More than 25,000 Irish people are enrolled on courses in other EU states, where more than 1,000 degree programmes are offered through English, often with lower entry demands


Our third-level system is creaking from a lack of funding. The points race is cranking up again and the cost of living is on the rise. Is it any wonder so many students are voting with their feet and looking abroad when it comes to college options?

Latest Eurostat figures show more than 25,000 Irish people were enrolled in further or higher education in other European Union member states in 2012.

With more than 1,000 degree programmes on offer through English, it is easy to see why many are ditching a stressful CAO process in favour of European courses, which tend to have lower entry requirements.

“Outside Ireland it’s so much less about grades or points,” says Molly Fitzmaurice, a second-year liberal arts and sciences student from Wexford who is studying at the University of Amsterdam. “You’re a person, not a number.”

Even though Fitzmaurice received enough points in her Leaving Cert to study philosophy at Trinity, she opted to study farther afield.

“I realised that my points wouldn’t be that high, but I knew I was a bright student and that I wanted an adventure. With the study-abroad application process, your points don’t define you the way they do at home. It’s a combination of the grades, portfolio and a personal statement that gets you in.

“Now I’m in a university that ranks higher than Trinity. They have a huge emphasis on the international environment and encourage and prepare you for the global world that my generation lives in.”

Needs of local students

The universities are offering these courses not just to attract international students but to cater for the needs of local students, too, says Guy Flouch of the European University Central Application Support Service, or Eunicas.

“English is the language of business, IT and engineering, and that’s what the local students want to learn through,” he says. “In all western European countries – except for Luxembourg – student numbers are dropping. Over here our system is under pressure. We don’t have enough money at the moment to put into third level.

“What Irish students are doing is exercising their rights as EU citizens; whatever these universities have for their students, we can access it as well.”

Higher rankings

Some of these universities, such as Utrecht and Leiden in the Netherlands, Gottingen in Germany and Lund in Sweden, rank higher than Irish institutions. The fees and cost of living are also attractive.

Although Ireland technically has “free fees” for third level, the €3,000 student contribution charge is greater than the cost of many courses in Europe. Typically, no fees apply in Germany, Sweden and Finland. In Austria, Switzerland and Belgium, fees are usually less than €1,000 a year.

Fees of €1,984 apply in the Netherlands (where more than 40 per cent of these programmes are offered), but students can get a loan to cover this and pay it back over 35 years. In Denmark students can get a grant of up to €750 a month for contributing to the country’s economic activity by working in a part-time job. In central Europe, fees for courses such as dentistry, veterinary and physiotherapy are more expensive and can average €10,000 per year.

But the lower cost of living balances out some of the cost compared with studying in Ireland. What’s more, those who qualify for a Susi grant can bring it with them to a publicly funded EU college.

College on the continent: students with Irish State-funded grants studying abroad

For many, however, the chance to be an international student is a big draw. Antony Adams, a career guidance practitioner and UK operations manager with Student World – which is hosting a student world fair in the RDS on March 12th – says studying abroad gives people a more globalised outlook and a competitive edge.

“From a careers point of view, if you look at the Netherlands the gap between employers and universities is very small,” says Adams. “They work really closely with each other. You have access to some of Europe’s biggest employers and students tend to do placements as part of their programme.

“Most of the students in universities doing applied sciences cannot graduate until they have done a placement. For students who are taking their careers seriously, I would strongly urge them to consider studying abroad. It is going to give them a platform for a better career.”

The points race dominates many parents’ and students’ minds come Leaving Cert year, but in much of Europe the attitude tends to be very different: everyone has a right to an education. As such, institutions try to reduce the barriers as much as possible. And although students have to work hard once accepted, getting in can be a lot easier than at home.

“For most of these places, all they are looking for is NUI matriculation (six passes, two at honours C3 or above, to include maths and a language). There might also be an interview, an online aptitude test or a personal statement,” says Flouch.

For medical schools, such as one of the six universities in Italy that teach medicine through English, you have to complete an entrance test. Half of it is verbal reasoning; the other half is natural sciences.

In central Europe, science subjects, an entrance exam and a “good” Leaving Cert is required, but more emphasis is placed on students’ aptitude for relevant subjects along with passing the exam.

Each university has its own application system, and closing dates vary between countries.

  • Eunicas offers a service to help students apply to up to eight universities, giving advice on courses and putting them in touch with various institutes for €28. For central European countries, and offer advice on courses and applications


Hague University of Applied Sciences, Netherlands

“Studying in Europe happened by chance,” says Ryan. “I didn’t get my first few choices. I repeated ordinary maths and got the grade I needed but not the choice I wanted. My mum came home one day and said she had heard on the radio about how colleges in Europe were still accepting applications. Three weeks later I was in the Netherlands.”

Now in his final year of European studies, Ryan is glad he made the break from Dublin to live in a different part of the world.

“When I finish I’ll have a lot more than a degree. I’ll have completed a six-month internship as part of the course, along with another 14 months’ experience that I organised myself. Everyone has a degree: employers are looking for more interesting stuff, like the fact I moved away on my own to a different country or that I set up societies in college.

“Being here has been brilliant for self- development. Here I have to look after myself, pay bills, I have responsibilities. If I’d stayed in Dublin I’d be living with my parents. I definitely think this will give me a leg up on my CV.”


University of Amsterdam

When Fitzmaurice started her liberal arts and sciences course, she was not fully aware of how much work would be involved. Her university has 900 students, and she is in classes of about 20 people, which are discussion-based rather than lecture-based. Participation makes up 20 per cent of her grade and she has assignments and exams every month.

“It was a shock but a good shock,” she says. “Everyone here is truly trying their best. There’s none of that ‘it’s cool to slack’ thing. I’ve learned time management, how to work hard and play hard and gained a lot of skills I probably wouldn’t have if I’d stayed at home. It’s really intense. You don’t get much holidays: two weeks at Christmas and two months in summer.

“Compared with my friends at home, I feel the course is much more about preparing you for work. Technically it’s a liberal arts and science degree but it takes the American approach; I major in humanities, literature and film, but I’ve done different modules . For example, I’ve also taken addiction studies. It’s perfect for people who know what they like but don’t know what they want to do.”


Semmelweis University, Budapest, Hungary

Rogers already had a commerce degree from UCC under his belt when he decided to study dentistry. On returning to education to complete a second degree, he discovered he was not entitled to any funding. Finances, along with the fact he lacked the required Leaving Cert science subjects, meant he had to try other options.

“I researched where to go and what courses were well-recognised, along with talking to people who trained in Semmelweis. The clincher for me was a pre-med course that covered all the basics in science. Coming form a business background, that was a good starting point.

“It also gave me a chance to get a feel for the place. I started the course a year later. It’s tough, especially the exam system, but I really enjoy it here and the cost of living is generally lower than at home.

“Food, eating out and alcohol are all significantly cheaper than Ireland, and my monthly transport across all services is just €22. I’ve got great training here, have made friends from all over the world and have been able to travel Europe so easily using Budapest as a base.”

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