Studying Abroad: Options in Europe and the UK

Lower fees, or no fees, and easier entry to high points courses are the big draws

Continental college life: students at the University of Groningen

Continental college life: students at the University of Groningen


Western Europe

An increasing number of students are opting to study in Europe where free (or more reasonable) fees, cheaper living costs, and easier entry requirements are proving hugely attractive.

“Cost isn’t a factor, entry requirements aren’t a factor, quality isn’t a factor. What can be a factor is whether you want to leave home or not,” says Guy Flouch of, the European University Central Application Support Service (EUNiCAS).

Flouch has seen a huge rise in the number of students applying to universities in western Europe over the past number of years. It’s not surprising, with almost 900 degree programmes across all disciplines taught through English, many of which are free from fees, or cheaper than studying in Ireland.

No fees apply in Germany, Scandinavia, 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, paying it back over 35 years. Those who qualify for a SUSI grant can bring it with them.

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. And with many multinationals looking for native English speakers for call and service centres, Irish students have an obvious advantage.

Europe also offers top quality universities with many such as Utrecht, Leiden (the Netherlands), Gottingen (Germany) and Lund (Sweden) ranking higher than Irish universities.

Securing a place in college can also be a lot easier than through the CAO, even for courses with 500+ points requirements here. Compared to Ireland, the barriers to entry are set lower and there is a strong focus on third level being accessible to everyone, regardless of academic achievements.

“They look at us and the UK and think that we are two islands off the coast of Europe who are obsessed with points,” says Flouch. “In Europe they are not relevant. 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.”

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

The Leaving Cert still has a role to play however. Most students are given a conditional offer before June, only being fully accepted once they pass their exams and matriculate.

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 and give them advice on courses, along with putting them in touch with various institutes, for €28.

Once you start college, you can expect to work very hard, regardless of the course. Students are expected to turn up to all lectures, to pass exams and there are a lot of contact hours.

‘It’s very demanding’

The experience can be a very positive one for students.

Conor Dalton, a 19-year-old student from Dublin, studying fashion and management in Amsterdam, says that the course is his life. Apart from playing football every Friday, most of his time is focused on classes and keeping up with college work.

“It’s very demanding, you can forget about a life outside of AMFI (Amsterdam Fashion Institute, part of Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences). There’s a big international community here in Amsterdam. There are always things going on and plenty of new people to meet. But I haven’t had the time to go to any of it.

“Studying abroad was something that always interested me. It gave me a chance to travel and experience a new culture, but also the course was unique and nothing similar could be done in Ireland. With cheaper fees than any of colleges and universities in Ireland, I thought why not? I hadn’t ever lived alone before, but I’m learning to survive by myself.”

Brian Tuohy (19) from Letterkenny, decided to study sport management in University College of Northern Denmark because of the free fees and the high standard of Scandinavian education. While it took him a little time to adjust, he is now fully settled in the course and is very happy with the educational opportunities.

“The course is very practical and is focused on interactive learning. Classes are small. There are 20 people in mine. There are opportunities here that I wouldn’t get studying in Ireland. For example, we are going on a 16-day study trip to Miami in February to visit all the sports organisations there. I have absolutely no regrets.”

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Eastern Europe

Eastern European countries including Hungary and Poland have long been a preferred destination for those studying high points courses such as medicine, veterinary, dentistry, pharmacy and physiotherapy. While fees apply (on average €10,000 per year), the lower cost of living balances out when compared to studying at home.

Dr Tim O’Leary is the Irish representative for Study Hungary, which offers English speaking medical-based programmes. Students apply through an entrance exam in biology and chemistry in Dublin in May. Successful candidates are offered a place, subject to their Leaving Cert results.

“What they say is they appreciate a good Leaving Cert,” says O’Leary. “Those getting in are usually in the 500 points bracket but you could get a student who is really good at science but weak in other subjects. But if they did well in the entrance exam and got 450 in the the Leaving Cert they wouldn’t turn them away.”

Other universities have different entry requirements. Nicolaus Copernicus University in Poland has no entrance exam but requires an interview and six passes in Leaving Cert, including two from biology, chemistry or physics.

Study around the clock

Once accepted to their chosen programme, students work hard.

Maeve Leonard (25) from Cork is in her final year at the Semmelweis University, Budapest. She had never intended studying abroad, but after missing medicine by just a couple of points two years in a row, she decided to bite the bullet and was accepted to Semmelweis, which has a very good international reputation.

“The medical course itself has its highs and lows. The first thing I would say to anybody considering coming to Semmelweis or any other foreign medical university is to make sure you want it 110 per cent, and are willing to sacrifice everything else for it. There is very little time, if any at all, for socialising or any other recreation. You have to be prepared and willing to study around the clock, as falling behind even a little isn’t really an option. It is a slippery slope that is extremely difficult to recover from.”

While Leonard says the course gets a little bit easier from third year on, interning in Hungary has also proved a challenge. Although language classes are provided, it can be difficult to communicate with patients and staff in hospitals where English is not the first language.

Despite working consistently hard for the past six years, Leonard is glad she studied abroad. “The city itself is breathtakingly beautiful, and it is so cheap to live here, which is ideal for students.

“The mix of cultures here is fantastic. People come from literally all corners of the globe to study in Budapest. You meet and make the most fascinating friends and learn a lot about other cultures.”

Irish students make up one third of veterinary students in English-speaking Hungarian colleges. James Sheridan (21) from Meath is in his third year at the Szent Istvan University for Veterinary Medicine. He decided to go to Budapest at the beginning of his Leaving Cert year, as he didn’t think he would make the points requirement for UCD and didn’t want to repeat. When his results came out, he was 20 points short for the course in Belfield.

His alternative route’s living costs (€200 a month for his city centre apartment and bills), plus the chance for adventure and travel, means he made the right choice. “I’m delighted I did it. I wouldn’t go back to Ireland for college even if I could. I never thought I’d work abroad when I qualify, but now I’m really considering it.” For more information visit:;; to contact Tim O’Leary, email:

United Kingdom

Irish students applying to the UK do so through UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) in the UK; the equivalent of the CAO. The closing date for the majority of undergraduate courses is January 15th, while some art and design courses have a deadline of March 24th.

While the application process is similar to the CAO in many ways, applicants also have to write a personal statement about why they want to study the course, along with providing previous employment details and references. Points play a pivotal role in getting on a course and there’s a points conversion calculator on

Some students choose to study in Northern Ireland, England, Scotland or Wales because a particular course is not available here, or because the entry requirements are lower. Scotland in particular is attractive for a number of students because of the free fees for those undertaking a degree there for the first time.

Since 2012, fees in Wales, England and Northern Ireland range from £3,000-£9,000 (€4,100-€12,400), depending on the course. Irish students in the UK can apply for a tuition fee loan, to pay back after graduation, when they start to earn over £21,000 (€28,900) a year.

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