According to the Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings 2023, the top 10 universities in the world are in the UK and the US. Other countries such as Germany, Australia, the Netherlands and Japan are also well represented in the top 200.
So, where are students from international schools in Singapore choosing to study abroad?
WhichSchoolAdvisor.com speaks to university counsellors and leaders at international schools including Tanglin Trust School, the International French School (IFS) and Stamford American International School to find out more about the most popular university destinations for this year and the next.
While many students may feel they need to return to their home countries to study for university, a student visa can offer the opportunity to study almost anywhere. Where you study can come with some red tape, though, depending on where your passport is from. You will need to check the entry requirements for programmes in different destinations, the duration of the degree, and the teaching pedagogy. It’s also important to research the cost of the degree (and cost of living).
Hani Rahman, Careers and Higher Education Guidance Counsellor at Dover Court International School, has this advice:
“Different countries can have very different styles of teaching and education systems, beyond just cultural differences, so students should do their research and understand if the education style matches them as a learner. A big thing students often miss, as well, is the number of years towards a degree! In some countries, undergraduate degrees can take three years and others it can take four.
“Being a student at an international school allows for so much fantastic exposure to so many different cultures and ideas. Students at international schools can hear about their friends applying to universities in Japan or Canada or Australia or anywhere in the world and can see how accessible universities around the world truly are.”
You should also consider whether you want to study overseas for the experience, or plan to remain in that country and work after your graduate.
Aidan Crowley, University Counsellor at SJI International, says:
“A key part of investing in university studies is the return on that investment. Being able to start their professional life overseas can add significant value in terms of future employability and contract negotiation when returning to wherever home might be.”
With most students taking their first big step away from living at home, they should also consider distance from family and safety.
Zoë Williams, Head of Careers & University Counselling at Tanglin Trust School, says:
“We always encourage students to think about their support network, as many opt to move away from their families to study, and who they will have within a reasonable distance if they need assistance. This can depend on where a student has lived previously and how independent they feel or which country they regard as ‘home’. Safety is something they should consider.
“We are very fortunate to live in Singapore as it has an extremely high standard of living. Moving from Singapore to a large US or European city can come as a culture shock, so we discuss this with our students and prepare them with a series of transition workshops through University Counselling sessions and Life Skills lessons.”
From Year 10, students in international schools should look to their careers department for guidance and advice on choosing the right university in the right country. During the application period, students will be supported with the writing of their personal statement; they may have one to one meetings to discuss their future plans; and schools often make country-specific presentations to outline the application processes, timeline, requirements and investment involved in each country.
Tanglin, for example, has a dedicated Careers & University Counselling Faculty that supports students on GCSE, A Level and IB Diploma options, work experience placements and university applications; from Year 10, students are mentored by a University Counsellor. The school hosts several university fairs each year, as well as a UK University Roadshow, a five-day work experience programme with local businesses in Singapore for all Year 10 students, and a bi-annual Careers Fair.
Universities in the UK, US and Canada have long been the destinations of choice for expat students in Singapore. More recently, English-speaking universities in Europe, in countries including the Netherlands and Spain, are becoming increasingly popular thanks to their offering of new and STEM-related courses, excellent facilities and more affordable fees.
Reflecting the strong British ethos of the school, the majority of Tanglin graduates attend university in the UK. However, increasing numbers apply to and attend universities in North America, Continental Europe, and Australasia.
As a French school in Singapore, around 50% of IFS students apply to universities in France, with the other half applying to universities in other countries, such as the UK, Europe, the US, Canada, and Australia. And at the American-curriculum SAIS, slightly more than half of the graduating cohort each year will apply to the US but there’s a broad range of other destinations including the UK, Netherlands, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Commenting on changing trends in university destinations, Sebastien Barnard, Director of IFS Admissions Marketing & Communications, says:
“We recognise that studying abroad offers a unique personal growth and development opportunity. Many of our students choose to attend universities in other countries to broaden their horizons, experience different cultures, and learn new languages.
"In recent years, we have seen an increasing number of students applying to universities in the UK, Holland, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, the US, and Canada, particularly for business, engineering, and the social sciences programmes.”
The College Counselling Team at Stamford American International School (SAIS) adds:
“As we continue to benefit from the reduction of pandemic restrictions, the opening of borders and accessibility of universities is providing our students with more options. Students graduate from high school with a valuable “passport” that opens up education opportunities all over the world.
"Having these extensive opportunities available to our students requires them to take charge of their choices through self-reflection and research. We push them to look beyond the major destinations and traditional degrees and search for those hidden gems that would be a perfect fit for the student.”
As students start to plan ahead for going to university in 2024 and beyond, we take a closer look at some of the most popular countries for undergraduate degrees.
The UK remains the dominant choice for many international students in Singapore. As well as Oxford and Cambridge, there is a lot of competition for entry into the Russell Group’s 24 leading universities, which are traditionally the most selective in the UK and the destination for many students attending UK private schools. These include the top-ranking
University of Bristol, Durham University, University of Edinburgh, University of Exeter, Imperial College London, King's College London, University College London, and University of Warwick.
The UK aims to attract 600,000 international undergraduate students by 2030 to ensure that it retains its number two position (behind the US) for attracting overseas students, after reductions in applications from Indian, Iraqi and Saudi students and a substantial downturn in applications from the EU following Brexit.
Chris Seal, Head of Tanglin Senior School, said:
“The UK is often a safe destination for many families, and I can see why. The application process is rather more streamlined and funding, though not cheap, is at least presently common in structure. However, also students should also be brave enough to look at the growth of international courses in the Netherlands or Sweden.”
The Oxbridge admissions process begins earlier in the UCAS cycle than other UK universities. Students who want to apply to Oxbridge must submit their applications by October 15 for the following year's entry – three months before most other universities. This means that students starting university in September 2025, should start preparing their application in January 2024 for the October 2024 application deadline.
Students should look at how they will be supported by their school for Oxbridge applications; Tanglin, for example, has two interns every year for six weeks from Oxford who “support and advise the students with their experiences of studying at these elite institutions”. And SJI International offers practice interview sessions so that can students get used to “vocalising their thoughts, which is a key part of the interview process”.
Commenting on Oxbridge applications, Zoë Williams at Tanglin adds:
“Students with perfect grades are not guaranteed a place, so each student needs to think carefully about the environment, the structure and demands of the course and the teaching style. They need to be confident they are fully engaged with their subject and have a dedication to their studies that goes far beyond the classroom.”
How do I apply?
UK university applications go through a streamlined platform operated by UCAS, which allows students to process all their application documents in one place.
For a small fee, UCAS then collates and directs the application to each student’s chosen universities. This system allows students to select up to five course/university choices. In the event that all five applications were unsuccessful, a student would be given the opportunity to add one more choice at a time. In recent years, a small number of UK universities have started to accept applications from international students outside of UCAS, and these must be handled directly with the university.
For applications to UK universities via UCAS, October 15 is the deadline for courses at Oxford and Cambridge, as well as for the majority of courses in medicine, veterinary medicine/science, and dentistry.
For the majority of courses at other universities, the deadline is January 25.
Its size and global reputation has made the US a leading global destination in the world for international students choosing a university. Most degree programmes in the US are four years long and you’ll be studying multiple subjects before specialising in the second half of your degree.
The most popular degree subjects studied by international students include business and management, engineering, maths, computer science and social sciences.
According to the latest QS World University Rankings, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US is ranked the world's best university for a record-breaking 11th consecutive year. After MIT, the top five include (in order) Stanford University, Harvard University, California Institute of Technology – all in the US – and the University of Oxford in the UK.
The most prestigious universities in the US are known as the US Ivy League and include Brown University (Providence); Columbia University (New York City); Cornell University (Ithaca, New York); Dartmouth College (New Hampshire); Harvard University (Massachusetts); University of Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania); Princeton University (New Jersey); and Yale University (Connecticut).
Chris Seal, Head of Tanglin Senior School, says:
“As with any university admission, the key is that the course and institution fit with the individual, so a good deal of research is vital.
"Though there are some direct apply majors in the US such as Engineering and Computer Science, another key reason for choosing to study there is access to the range of liberal arts programmes that allow flexibility and exploration throughout the first part of any degree course while a student matures into the space where focus and specialisation can occur well.
"In addition, the quality of the institutions is impressive and so the education offered is exceptional in certain schools, though of course the fees are also high!”
The College Counselling Team at Stamford American International School (SAIS) adds:
“Apart from offering a choice of 6,000-plus colleges and universities, the US offers a flexible educational system (e.g. Liberal Arts Colleges) which allows students to continue to explore a wide range of academic interests if they are not sure yet what to focus on. In addition, they continue developing themselves as individuals through their experiences at their institution outside of their academic programme.”
Mr Seal was among a team from Tanglin who recently visited universities along the West Coast of the US, including Stanford, UC Berkeley and UCLA, where they found that applications are up across the board and the US market has become even more competitive.
“Some colleges once considered a ‘safe bet’ are now extremely difficult to get in to, and so applicants will need in depth knowledge and advice about how to tailor applications to ensure success.
"Unsurprisingly the tech industry shows no signs of slowing down and although there have been layoffs in companies recently, they are still hiring at graduate level – as such Californian universities remain outstanding prospects for employability.”
How do I apply?
Many US universities use a centralised application platform called CommonApp, on which applicants can select up to 20 course choices. Some US universities do not use CommonApp, in which case applications can be made directly to the university instead.
Admissions in the US is not typically based on strict grades and entry requirements; instead, US universities consider your academic record over the last four years of your schooling, as well as extra-curricular activities, leadership roles and other achievements.
Universities in the US have three intakes across the year (September, January and May) but September, as with most countries, is the primary intake.
Application deadlines for US universities vary between universities and courses, but also according to the conditions of the application, which the student can choose.
The US has a system called ‘Early Decision’, which involves a student applying early (usually in November) and then being legally bound to accept an offer if one is made. ‘Early Action’, meanwhile, also enables a student to apply early, but without the legal obligation to accept any resulting offer. 'Regular Decision', which most students apply under, usually has a January or February deadline.
There are several reasons why the Netherlands has become increasingly popular with international students in recent years. The country has some top ranking, world-renowned universities; there are seven Netherlands’ universities in the QS World University Rankings 2023 Top 200.
The University of Amsterdam, highly regarded for its programmes in social sciences, law, and humanities, and Delft University of Technology, known for its cutting-edge research in engineering and technology, are both in the Top 100. Leiden University, one of the oldest universities in the Netherlands, is home to one of the largest and most prestigious law schools in Europe.
Universities in the Netherlands offer low tuition fees; the annual tuition fee is € 2,314 for the academic year 2023-2024 for EU students, and between € 6,000 and € 15,000 for other nationalities. The cost of living in the Netherlands is more affordable, especially when compared to other Western European countries; also, there are lots of scholarship opportunities.
There is a wide range of English-language programs – about 2,000 programmes are taught entirely in English – and 95% of the Dutch speak English. Universities here offer some excellent undergraduate programmes in finance, environmental studies, business, engineering, and international relations, and they have a strong focus on research and innovation, which gives students a chance to work on cutting-edge projects.
How do I apply?
Applications for universities in the Netherlands generally go through a platform called Studielink, however it is best to check with individual universities whether you should apply this way as a minority use alternative methods. Applicants can select up to four courses at a time, of which only two can be subject to Numerus Fixus.
There are multiple application deadlines for universities in the Netherlands. The application deadline for most courses is May 1, while some universities have deadlines of February 1 and March 1.
For the 'Numerous Fixus' (study programmes for which universities set a certain capacity, resulting in a limited number of places being available) the deadline is January 15.
The number of international students attending university in Australia is up by almost 50% compared to before the Covid-19 pandemic, and Department of Education data shows that in 2022, there were 619,000 international students in Australia.
Students choose Australia for its great outdoorsy lifestyle and world-class education; there are 14 Australian universities in the QS World University Rankings 2023 Top 200. Also, in comparison to the US and UK, the living costs in Australia are considerably lower.
The country’s top-ranking universities include The Group of Eight (Go8) – Australia’s leading research-intensive universities: the University of Melbourne, the Australian National University, the University of Sydney, the University of Queensland, the University of Western Australia, the University of Adelaide, Monash University and UNSW Sydney.
The academic year in Australia starts in January/February, and most universities have two semesters: February to July, and July to December. This means that students attending any school with a Northern Hemisphere academic calendar (August/September – June/July) will apply after they have graduated from Year 13.
How do I apply?
While there is a centralised university application system for applicants within Australia, international students are generally required to apply to individual universities directly. Most universities will detail their requirements and process on their websites.
Application deadlines vary but are typically between October - December for the January/February intake and March-June for the July intake, although some universities have earlier deadlines.
The French higher education system is divided into public and private institutions, with public universities being the most common type of institution; several universities in France specialise in particular fields, such as engineering, business, or humanities.
Most degrees are taught in French, although there is a growing number of English-taught courses. Tuition fees at public universities are lower than in other parts of Europe; EEA residents can study tuition-free, while students from outside Europe pay around Euro 3,000-4,000 a year. Private universities usually charge more, up to Euro 20,000 annually.
The country’s most elite universities are part of the CGE (Conference des Grande Ecoles), which is often compared to the UK's Russell Group the US Ivy League. The most well-known universities include Sorbonne University, École Normale Supérieure, École Polytechnique, Université Paris-Saclay, and University of Paris-Sud.
Sebastien Barnard, Director of IFS Admissions Marketing & Communications, says:
“There are many advantages to studying in France, including the opportunity to learn French, one of the world's most widely spoken languages. Additionally, France has a rich cultural heritage and a long history of academic excellence, particularly in fields such as engineering, business, and the arts.
"French universities also offer a wide range of undergraduate and graduate programs and have strong links with industry, providing students with valuable networking opportunities.”
How do I apply?
European Union (EU) and European Economic Area (EEA) students can apply directly to the university, under the same conditions as French students, or through the Parcoursup Platform.
Non-EU/EEA students should apply through an online application system through the Etudes en France procedure on Campus France and need to pass the Preliminary Admission or Demande d'Admission Préalable - DAP for applying to French institutions.
Application deadlines vary. For non-EU students, they must apply between October – December for the September intake the following year. Universities generally must respond to applications by the end of March.
For EU students, registration opens in mid-January and the deadline is mid-March/early April for the September intake that year.