Hello Oslo: clever clogs students head overseas where postgraduate courses are cheaper

Nov 15, 2015 by

Motivated, bright and worldly, 22-year-old science student Susan Dalzell is the kind of talent Malcolm Turnbull would want in his innovative new Australia, but Europe is calling her.

Ms Dalzell says she needs a masters degree to progress towards a career as a researcher, but the high cost of Australian postgraduate courses has motivated her to continue her studies in Norway.

Back home, the annual fee is around $27,800. Here it’s around $100 a semester for your student amenities fee and that’s it.

Susan Dalzell

“Back home, the annual fee is around $27,800. Here it’s around $100 a semester for your student amenities fee and that’s it,” Ms Dalzell says.

The Canberran has applied for a masters in chemistry at the University of Oslo, where she’s currently completing the final semester of her undergraduate degree while on exchange from the Australian National University.

“Norway is one of the most expensive countries to live in and yet when I compare my living costs to home, they are almost exactly the same,” she says.

Elsewhere in Europe, the incentives are even greater. 840 kilometres across the Baltic Sea, Sydneysider Pascal Herington is in the final year of a Masters of Opera at the University of the Arts in Berlin, Germany.

Not only is he studying for free, he’s benefiting from a €800 ($1222) a month scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service, (DAAD).

More than 48,000 international students held DAAD scholarships in 2014.

“I don’t understand how I’m eligible for this but it pays my living expenses. It’s everything I need to live – I don’t need to dig into my savings to have a life here,” Mr Herington says.

“Often there are times when I think that this is a piss-take,” says Herington. “But it makes total sense because now I want to stay here and funnel what I’ve learnt into their music world, and that’s how [the Germans] foster talent.”

He is paying €420 a month for a one-bedroom apartment – roughly half what he was paying for a room in a Sydney share house.

Having a social life is also cheaper, with mid-range restaurant meals costing about 23 per cent less, according to online cost of living database Numbeo.

Beer is 43 per cent cheaper – a fact that presents a risk to the academic fortunes of thirsty types.

“Just as a numbers game, studying here is a no-brainer,” he says.

Mr Herington says he pays a compulsory fee of about €300 each semester, but this more than pays for itself in the form of free public transport and other student benefits.

There are also considerable non-financial benefits, such as having exposure to Europe’s vibrant arts scene, Mr Herington says.

In the German city of Aachen, 600 kilometres west, Queenslander David Swallow, 25, has just graduated with a masters degree in engineering and plans to capitalise on local job opportunities.

“Apparently it’s not that easy for engineers to get jobs in Australia at the moment. In Germany it seems to be quite easy,” he says.

After graduating with a bachelor of engineering from Queensland University of Technology, Mr Swallow began work as a civil engineer and learned German as a hobby.

After 1½ years in the workforce, he applied for a place at RWTH Aachen University, one of Germany’s best engineering schools, where all classes are delivered in German.

He was admitted after passing a language examination.

“All the professors I had, except for one, were brilliant … the stuff you’re hearing in lectures is definitely a much higher level than what you would hear in Australia,” he says.

“Is it a better system? It’s hard to say. Here it’s a lot more theoretical, a lot more abstract.”

Across the French border at the Cite Internationale Universitaire de Paris, Melburnian Connie Duong, a post-doctoral researcher, says sightings of Australian coursework students are rare.

“Many people probably don’t realise that local and international students here pay the same fees.”

How much cheaper is it, exactly?

Costs can vary significantly depending on the field of study, city and institution.

A Melbourne student studying a masters of economics and living in a three-bedroom apartment could be more than $50,000 better off in Berlin, based on analysis of relocation costs, fees and living expenses.

Savings may be larger for students living in student accommodation due to lower living costs.

Germany and Norway feature numerous public universities offering degrees for little or no cost, although some disciplines have greater fees attached.

Other European countries like France and Austria offer degrees taught in English at significantly lower cost than Australia.

*Comparison with Australian masters degree costing $54,400. Estimates assume student lives in a three-bedroom shared apartment outside the city centre and resides in the country for 20 months. Living costs sourced from numbeo.com. Fees and exchange rates as at November 6, 2015. Estimates allow for two return flights and exclude scholarships.


Are the Germans out of their minds?

One can only imagine how Treasurer Scott Morrison would react to suggestions Australia should forfeit the rivers of gold generated by international students. Our universities are heavily reliant on this income and successive governments have endorsed this as a means of minimising budgetary impact.

But countries like Germany have a different philosophy.

“Those who concentrate solely on immediate profit are not looking at the big picture,” DAAD president Margret Wintermantel says.

About half of international students remain in Germany to pursue employment opportunities, according to DAAD figures.

Even with a 30 per cent retention rate, it’s estimated foreign graduates generate an estimated €1.36 billion in tax revenues every year – enough to repay their education costs in full.

International students generate annual tax revenues of up to €400 million through consumer spending alone, creating an estimated 22,000 German jobs, according to DAAD figures.

Attracting international students is part of a policy of internationalising German universities, says Professor Wintermantel.

“We invite talented individuals to study and work in our academic and research system and help them stay here, or if they choose to return home, encourage them to be Germany’s partners in the future,” says Professor Wintermantel.

There are about 300,000 foreign students in Germany. About 580 are from Australia – 10 per cent more than last year.

Why are Australian postgrad degrees so expensive?

Unlike undergraduate degrees, postgraduate degrees are generally not subsidised by the government. Postgraduate degrees are also deregulated, meaning universities set their own prices.

In 2016, a year’s worth of undergraduate writing and literature studies will cost students $5,256. By comparison, a postgraduate degree in writing and literature will cost about $24,000 a year.

It’s worth considering that postgraduate fees may be deferred if you’re eligible for a FEE-HELP loan, whereby the cost will be deducted from your salary once you earn above the minimum threshold ($54,126 in 2015-16).

No interest is charged on HELP loans.


Do you need a second language?

Short answer: No.

German universities offer more than 1000 master and bachelor programs taught in English. Topics range from film, visual art and music, to economics, engineering, business and law.

Other European countries also offer large numbers of degrees taught entirely or mostly in English.

Can you study in Europe as an undergraduate?

Yes, although there are fewer options taught in English.

However, the financial incentive is somewhat smaller given Australian undergraduate degrees are government subsidised and therefore cheaper.

Furthermore, the proximity of family and friends makes Australia a more attractive proposition for school leavers transitioning to university life.

More adventurous types could consider something like the Bachelor of Science in Biology at the University of Oslo, taught entirely in English. “Whale Safaris” are compulsory.


Can you get Centrelink support?

Australian students enrolled at foreign universities are not eligible for income support.

Youth Allowance, Austudy and ABSTUDY are only available if you’re studying on Australian shores, or in an approved overseas exchange program.

It’s understood that this policy is based on the principle that income support should be restricted to residents studying courses that further their ability to participate economically or socially within Australia.

In practice, this means students are eligible for income support if they are prepared to pay the significantly higher cost of an Australian degree – albeit with the assistance of a HELP loan.

Many Australian postgraduate degrees are not Austudy-eligible.

Making ends meet

“Unless you have a lot of money you’re going to have to work [while you are studying],” Ms Dalzell says.

European student visas permit students to work part-time, but it’s a lot easier to find work if you speak the language, she says.

Norway currently requires you to demonstrate funds of NOK 100,920 ($16,400) for a year, although scholarships and future income from a part-time job may be counted.

Ms Dalzell has a head start, having already obtained a job as a swimming instructor.

Germany requires student visa applicants to prove funds or income of €8000 ($12,200) for one year. Other countries have similar requirements.


Making the transition

Many survive without speaking the native tongue, but learning the language is a social advantage, Mr Herington says.

“Everybody does speak English. But if you arrive in group of 20 and you’re the only cat that speaks English, no one wants to speak English for your sake,” he says.

He also recommends expat groups as a means of warding off homesickness.

“People are really, really welcoming in their German way … but there are just some ways in which we’re totally different and you can’t change that,” he says.

“Every now and then you need to sit down with an Australian or New Zealander and say: ‘these Germans are doing my head in, mate!'”

It’s also an advantage to have German friends on hand to help you navigate the notoriously labyrinthine, legalistic local bureaucracy, Mr Herington says.

Mr Swallow recommends integrating oneself by living with locals, rather than living with other international students.

Ms Dalzell says being on exchange beforehand allows you to assess the quality of the educational product by talking to academics and students on the ground.


Practical Information

Semester dates

Winter:     October – March

Summer:     April – September


Most courses begin in the European winter, although some admit students in summer. Applications usually open about five months before the start of semester.

Most courses have specific pre-requisites. Places are limited and are usually awarded on merit.

Visa requirements

Admission to a degree is generally a pre-requisite. Consult relevant consulates for further information.



Source: Hello Oslo: clever clogs students head overseas where postgraduate courses are cheaper

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