DESPITE what you might have been told this summer, it doesn't take a rejection from Oxford to make a sixth-former opt to go to university abroad.
In the furore over Laura Spence's failure to win a place at Magdalen College - dominated as it was by class warriors and defenders of privilege - little attention was paid to the increasing globalisation of higher education.
For many, globalisation carries connotations of insecure employment, infectious petrol protests and Brussels bureaucrats. However, for students it means more freedom over where they study than ever.
Vivian Anthony, secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference warned the organisation's Harrogate conference this week that Britain was in danger of losing some of its most talented young people to American universities on scholarship programmes.
Top universities are now competing in a still relatively small but growing market for mobile students. "There is an international league table of universities. American universities in particular are trying to recruit from abroad both because it boosts their standing and because there is a feeling that it is good for the country's
economy," said Professor
Alan Smithers of Liverpool
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation estimates that 1.6 million students around the world were studying outside their own country in 1996. The majority come from the developing world to Europe or North America to study at internationally-respected universities or to improve their language (especially English) skills.
But western students are also becoming more adventurous. A year abroad has been a feature of many language and business study degrees for years. The Erasmus programme run by the European Union has helped increase the number of students who get the chance to spend time abroad during their stud-ies.
And as travel becomes cheaper a generation of young people for whom a gap year and extensive foreign travel is the norm rather than the exception, are deciding to spend the whole of their degree course abroad.
The number of EU students choosing to study at universities outside their home country increased by two-thirds between 1990 and 1996 to more than 200,000. This compares to a worldwide increase during the same period of just over a third. There are no figures showing whether the number of British students going abroad to study has increased but anecdotal evidence suggests it has.
In the past, language barriers, the expansion in the number of university places at home and relatively generous funding student subsidies have discouraged Britons from studying overseas. But this could now change.
It is too early to tell what impact the introduction of tuition fees will have on the number of British students studying abroad. However, there are reasons to suggest that it could provoke at least a limited exodus from UK universities.
European Union rules dictate that all EU students must be offered the same deal in respect of tuition fees and entry requirements as home students. That means that UK undergraduates have the chance to avoid paying fees by studying abroad.
For many, language will restrict their choice (the EU does allow universities to set tests for foreign students) but luckily for the monolingual, Ireland is one of those countries which does not charge fees (see case study).
A British student choosing to study in Ireland not only gets the chance to sample a different culture and down authentic pintsof the black stuff, they will also save themselves at least pound;3,000 in tuition costs - enough to buy 1,500 pints of Guinness in Dublin.
In 1998, the latest year for which figures are available, Ireland was the sixth most popular destination for British students abroad.
However, it remains a long way behind Australia and the United States which between them are the choice of more than half of those leaving these shores. Like Laura Spence, many of those choosing the United States are attracted by the chance of a "world-class" education at an internationally- respected university.
But getting a degree at home is still cheaper than going to many other countries. Fees in the US are typically higher than in the UK - pound;14,972 a year at Harvard, for example - and many of these people rely on the bursaries which many American institutions offer.
This differential in fees, combined with an expansion of university places in the UK, means that while around 200,000 foreign students can be found at British institutions, only around 20,000 (including postgraduates) head in the opposite direction.
Indeed, the UK is second only to the United States in attracting foreign students. However, Professor Smithers warns that the expansion of British higher education has undermined the international competitiveness of our top universities.
"In expanding the higher education system we have not funded the quality of places we used to," he said. "Because there is worldwide competition the international standings are changing all the time. For instance, Malaysian students used to come here but now many go to Australia, to Melbourne or Adelaide."
Many developing countries are also attempting to increase their share of the market in foreign students. Student Mobility on the Map, a report published this year by the Council for Education in the Commonwealth and UKCOSA: The Council for International Education, argues that: "Times are now changing with the growth of the international market in education and several countries which have traditionally been thought of as senders are now taking a keen interest in attracting students from abroad."
It points to Malaysia, Singa-pore and South Africa as coun-tries which have begun moves to attract more foreign students. "Because of their price advantage, they and other Commonwealth developing countries are potentially keen competitors of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK," the report says.
In the short term it is unlikely that the developing world will be able to reverse the direction of the flow of students. It takes time to build up a university's reputation and their price advantage is weakened by the subsidies which countries like Britain give to home students.
Even with the introduction of fees, students at home do not pay anywhere near the full cost of their tuition. But with pressure from the top universities to introduce top-up fees the long-term picture may be different. Perhaps in a generation's time students will look not to Ireland for a cheaper education but to India or Singapore.
form2 - a database of international universities with their web addresses and telephone numbers. http:www.ercscotland.eurodesk.org - information on studying in Europe including databases and details of the systems of individual countries. http:europa.eu.intcommeducationerascompindex.html - European Union site. Includes details of the ERASMUS exchange programme. http:www.ukcosa.org.uk - the council for international education. Deals mainly with international students coming to Britain.