Exchange programmes and years abroad: your questions answered
Erasmus and other exchange programmes
Doing a student exchange programme is a great way to travel and experience life in a different country. This guide will introduce you to the main features of exchange programmes, both within and outside of Europe.
What are they?
Many universities in the UK offer students the opportunity to study or work abroad as part of their degree course. This can be for just one term or a whole year.
They are often a compulsory part of language courses, but increasingly popular with other subjects. For example, at the University of Birmingham, every year over 550 undergraduate students complete a year abroad - from subjects as wide-ranging as Natural Sciences and Social Policy.
An exchange programme may or may not lengthen your degree. Generally in Scotland where degrees are four years long anyway, the third year abroad counts as one of the four, whereas in England by going abroad you’re likely to add a year to your degree. This is worth keeping in mind, as it means that when you return to the UK, many of the friends you had in your second year might have graduated.
What will I do?
What you do during your year or term abroad will depend on the scheme that your university offers. The international office at your university will normally have to approve the plans for your trip in advance, to make sure that it will contribute to your degree in some way.
Language students often have the choice between working, studying, volunteering, or teaching as a language assistant at a school. The main requirement is that they spend the majority of their time speaking in their second language.
For other degree subjects, your options will depend on your university’s policy:
- Your university may have partnerships with overseas universities which teach their degree programmes in English. These partnerships allow you to study at a foreign institution, whilst still paying your home fees.
- If your course includes a sandwich year or year in industry, it might be possible to spend this time working for an organisation overseas.
Where can I go?
Anywhere! Or, anywhere your university allows.
For language students, often the only requirement is that the country you are going to has the language you study as an official language. This means you’re not limited to France, if you study French - you could head to Belgium, Canada, or even Madagascar.
For non-language students, your options for study will be limited to where your university has partnerships. A university will often list these on their website, so make sure you do your research in advance if you’re keen to study abroad. For example, UCL has links with universities across the world - from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to the Hong Kong University of Science & Tech.
Worth knowing: Your university will probably have a limited number of places reserved for its students at each of its partner universities. Exchange programmes based in the most desirable locations can be quite competitive, so don’t take it for granted that you’ll be accepted onto your first choice.
Why should I go?
A year or term abroad is such an exciting opportunity. Here’s why:
- Study your subject from a fresh perspective. Learn from academics who could bring a whole new approach to your field of study.
- Meet new people. You’ll meet people from the host country, as well as other international students undertaking an exchange programme like you.
- Travel to new places. You’ll study or work in an exciting new place, and could use it as a jumping off point to further travels once your exchange programme is complete.
- Experience a different culture. Learn about how different communities live - their customs, culture, and food.
- Learn a language. Immersion amongst native speakers is the best way to learn a language. Even if you’re not a language student, an exchange programme could be the perfect time to learn.
- Build your CV. Living overseas shows adaptability and an understanding of different cultures that could be valuable to employers. If you choose to work rather than study, you’ll gain insight into a professional field.
How can I do an exchange?
Some degree courses will indicate that they include a year abroad when you apply for them on UCAS. For example, the University of Warwick offers Ancient History and Classical Archaeology with Study in Europe as an undergraduate course, which means the study abroad period is guaranteed from the beginning.
Other universities offer exchange programmes that you can apply to once you have already started your degree. For example, if you are a Classical Studies student at Newcastle University, you can choose to extend your degree from a three-year course to a four-year one, by applying for one of their European exchange programmes, after you have taken up your place at the university.
How much will it cost?
If you study at an institution which is partnered with your university, there is usually an arrangement whereby you continue to pay your normal home fees (or a fraction of the normal amount) so you do not need to pay the fees of the host university.
If you normally receive a maintenance loan, you’re still entitled to this while abroad, as you are still considered to be a member of your home university. In fact, you could be entitled to a higher amount than usual, as the minimum maintenance loan is higher for students on exchange programmes.
If you are studying or working in an EU country, you can apply for an Erasmus grant. You apply for the grant through your university, and you will receive money for every month that you are planning to spend abroad, up to 12 months. The amount you receive depends on the cost of the country you’re going to, whether you’re working or studying, and your own financial situation. It’s usually between 370 and 520 EUR per month. And the best part? You do not have to pay this money back.
The cost of flights is not normally covered by your university, so make sure to factor this into your budget when planning your time abroad.
What if my university doesn’t offer exchange programmes?
If you want to go abroad but can’t find opportunities that interest you through your university, it’s possible to organise things yourself. There are also private companies that can help you to organise an exchange. This may or may not fit within an Erasmus or equivalent programme.
Making your own independent plan happen and guaranteeing you’re getting a good deal can be tricky though - you might have to email organisations on the other side of the world in a language that you haven’t mastered. If you do things independently, you’ll have to organise every detail yourself, such as where you’ll stay, what it might cost and whether your university will be happy to count it towards your degree. Nonetheless, if you can find an opportunity which really suits your interests, it might well be worth it.
- The European Commission website has more information about how Brexit will affect the Erasmus+ scheme for UK citizens.
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