How to study abroad when your university offers no exchange programmes or support
Katie is a student studying Natural Sciences, majoring in Chemistry, at the University of Cambridge. She is currently doing a year abroad studying Chinese at the Harbin Institute of Technology through the British Council Generation UK-China scholarship programme, where she is blogging about her experiences. Here is her advice about how to study abroad when your university offers no exchange programmes or support.
1. Double check!
First, just because your particular course doesn't have a built-in year abroad doesn't mean that your university doesn't have any potential exchange agreements or support. Get in touch with your International Student Office/Erasmus Coordinator, someone from the Modern Languages department or your tutor to see if they are aware of any available exchange programmes they simply haven't advertised to you. If you are able to go through a recognised exchange programme, you may be able to get student finance or an Erasmus grant during your year and/or have it count towards your degree. If not though, all hope is not lost – keep reading...
2. Look into non-degree programmes
Many universities worldwide have 'non-degree' years, these enable you to spend a year studying at the university without obtaining a degree from them. Note – these will not usually count towards your UK degree, so you will have to take a gap year in the middle of your degree in order to do this. Non-degree years may simply be a standard year of one of their degree programmes, the opportunity to combine any modules of interest, or programmes completely separate from the main degree students (particularly common for language courses).
During this year, you won't get any support from student finance so make sure you bear the costs in mind – particularly since these are often quite pricey if you want to go to popular English-speaking year abroad locations such as the USA and Australia. However, if you are willing to be flexible on location you can find some much more favourable options, for example China is relatively cheap, as well as scholarship opportunities.
3. Investigate scholarship options
This was the route I went with by choosing to complete a non-degree year through the British Council Generation UK-China scholarship programme. This is essentially the same as point 2 above, except that you get a scholarship (yay!) but will be much more limited to particular countries or institutions.
If anyone is considering coming to China for their year abroad (do it!) I'd highly recommend both the British Council scholarships and the Chinese Scholarship Council ones. These cover all your essential living costs and in the case of the British Council some scholarships arrange special programmes with the universities, for example I was able to combine Chinese language study with Chemistry modules, something normal non-degree students are unable to do.
4. Go with a study abroad provider
If you google 'study abroad in …' a whole load of exciting websites pop up offering you fantastic study and travel opportunities at prestigious institutions in exotic locations… for a rather hefty fee.
I personally wouldn't recommend this option since it seems rather overpriced – but check out the universities these programmes are linked to and get in touch with them directly to see if there are any opportunities to bypass the expensive study abroad provider and enrol for a non-degree year. An example of this is the CET Chinese language programme, which runs courses at HIT for nearly 10 times the price of the (almost identical) language course I am on.
Ok, so you've found your perfect programme and they are willing to accept you as a student – what next?
5. Get permission
If you haven't already, get the permission of your UK university to go. Some universities will be more willing than others – for me, Cambridge was pretty resistant to the idea and my college tutors (who were absolutely amazing in supporting me through this!) had to really put up a fight. However, other students I've met since arriving in China had no such problems and their universities let them take a year out without any fuss.
If you find yourself in a position where you have to argue your case, make sure you have some...
Solid reasons for going:
- To improve career opportunities
- To become more independent and confident
- To study other areas / views of your UK degree subject (e.g. if you're a History student, learning about non-European history)
- To study a completely different subject which will help you in the future – e.g. a language, business, politics, etc. (depending on your career ambitions)
NOT so suitable reasons:
- To travel
- To 'have a break'
- I also had to explain to my university why I wanted to go now rather than after graduation.
Some ideas are:
- Job offers – in my case, I had a potential graduate job lined up which I couldn't postpone by a year
- Unique opportunities – depending on where you're going/ if you're offered a specific scholarship, the opportunity may only be available to students part way through their degrees
- To get a different perspective on your degree subject, if it will help you in your final year – for me, the opportunity to study some physical chemistry (an area I admit I am weaker on) in a less time-pressured environment will give me a head start on my studies next year.
When it comes to applying for jobs, it is much harder to do so if you are abroad (since you can't easily travel to the UK for interviews and Skype interviews are challenging with time zone differences), so doing a masters/ non-degree year abroad after your degree may inhibit your job search (although if you are hoping to work in your year abroad country this doesn't apply!). Also, if you have already completed your year abroad you can reflect on your experiences and present this to employers during interviews.
6. Get everything sorted for your year out
Enrol with the university, pay any tuition deposits etc. and get your visa sorted. All the details of this will vary greatly between countries and universities, but your foreign university should be able to guide you through the process.
7. Cancel your student finance/ UK accommodation etc.
You need to cancel student finance before the usual start of term for your UK degree (ideally by the end of August to avoid the rush of last minute SFE applicants in September hogging the phone lines). The easiest way is (unfortunately) to phone them up and explain that you want to postpone your application until next year. Make sure they understand you're NOT dropping out of your degree, just taking a year out!
If you have already arranged third year accommodation you're going to have to cancel that too – depending on what you had arranged it will affect the situation here. In my case, I was due to stay in university halls so they simply allocated my room to someone else on the waiting list and I was let off scot-free. If you had arranged private accommodation it's likely you will lose your deposit or need to find someone to take your place – so if this is the case, get on it sooner rather than later (and liaise with your housemates over your replacement!).