Perhaps you are starting your law degree this September and have heard of the possibility of studying abroad for a year, or maybe you are aware of the option to take an Erasmus year abroad, but are put off by the thought of taking a leap into the unknown?
I spent my third year studying at Toulouse University in the South of France and it was, without a doubt, the best year of my life.
I spent my third year studying at Toulouse University in the south of France and it was, without a doubt, the best year of my life. I believe that this sentiment is shared by almost all other Erasmus students. I spent at least a month recovering from ‘post-Erasmus depression’ upon my return to Edinburgh and, even three years later, I have spent many hours reminiscing with friends about all the stories that you ‘had to be there’ for.
It is a test of your independence and self-reliance because, while you have the support of your home institution throughout, the familiarity and day-to-day security is lacking. Your host university will have an Erasmus office available to help you, but you will probably find yourself left to manage on your own for many things.
While by its very nature you can never be entirely prepared for the completely new surroundings that you will find yourself in, taking some time to think carefully about what you want to get out of your year will ensure that you choose a university that challenges you and where you feel comfortable.
Here are some pointers to get you started.
What exactly is Erasmus?
The Erasmus programme is run by the British Council in the UK and is part the the European Union’s Lifelong Learning initiative. It allows students from all across Europe to spend the third year of their studies abroad at a foreign university. It is available to students of almost all disciplines and is a popular choice among law students, regardless of whether or not they are also studying a language, as this is not a requirement.
The Erasmus programme is run by the British Council in the UK and is part the the European Union’s Lifelong Learning initiative.
How should I decide where to go?
Your home university will be able to provide a list of the institutions where they can send students, and destinations can range from Paris to Groningen, Madrid to Berlin and Vienna to Copenhagen. When deciding your top choices there are some particularly important considerations to take into account.
Perhaps the most pressing consideration is language. If you are taking a foreign language as part of your degree course then the decision is simple. If you are not, you should think carefully about how well equipped you are to function in a foreign academic environment. After all, your ability to learn from your classes and pass exams is dependent upon your ability to understand the language they are taught in.
At some European universities, lectures and teaching are carried out in English, particularly in The Netherlands. While you would still be studying the native law and legal system, the pressure of having to learn an additional language on top of law courses is alleviated, though you still have the option to take language classes in your own time.
At some European universities, lectures and teaching are carried out in English, particularly in The Netherlands.
Alternatively, you may feel that you have sufficient language skills to get you started and are prepared for total immersion! While this option may be daunting, it is absolutely the most effective way to learn a language. It is likely that your lecture notes in the first month will be very brief, but your vocabulary will grow day by day (and it should be fairly easy to befriend a native speaking student and ask them to let you copy their notes afterwards to make sure you don’t fall behind!). You learn because you have to, and the more willing you are to participate in lectures and tutorials, as well as in university life outside of classes, the faster it will happen.
It is advisable to check what language classes (if any) are available to foreign students through the university as you may have to be pro-active and find your own. Many people take on a part-time job or do language exercises in their own time to gain as much exposure to the language as possible.
Think about the location of your host university. For example, would you rather be in a large city or a smaller one? Do you want to be in the midst of the art and culture scene that a capital city would offer or would you like easy access to the ski slopes so you can spend your Erasmus grant on skiing trips? Depending on how often you want to go home, being near an airport with a direct route to your nearest UK airport is something to consider, as is the ease at which you can travel from your city to other destinations, because it is definitely worth taking time to explore.
Things to think about before you get there
Finding somewhere to live can seem very stressful, but it is one of those things that always works out in the end.
If you are worried about your vocabulary, more technical subjects such as criminal law and the law of obligations often use similar terminology to that used in English, whereas jurisprudential subjects that are more abstract are likely to be more wordy.
Finding somewhere to live can seem very stressful, but it is one of those things that always works out in the end. Before you leave, it is usual to apply for accommodation with your host university and you would be allocated a room in their halls of residence.
The standards and living conditions can vary considerably between countries, cities and even universities. For example, in Paris or Madrid, you may find yourself out of the city centre with a long commute into university and you may or may not have cooking facilities. Most distressingly, you may have communal showers and toilets! It may not be perfect, but knowing you have somewhere to go before you leave can be very reassuring.
If you are a little braver, most places you have their own mechanism for searching for shared apartments, for example, Appartager in France. The best way to improve your grasp of a language is to live with native speakers.
Go with an open mind
It is also worth bearing in mind that different UK institutions have different requirements for their students…
Be prepared for some different practices! Exams may or may not be like those that you are used to sitting in the UK. Some, for example, may be open book or oral, as they were in Toulouse. You will be told when you start studying how you will be assessed, but it is wise to be prepared for a different style of learning for exams. In the UK, we focus on problem solving by applying the law to given facts or to an essay question. You can ‘question spot’ to some degree and focus your revision on particular areas. However, at Toulouse University, the oral exams lasted approximately 15 minutes and students picked a turned-over piece of paper from the desk in front of them containing a short question that could be on any part of the entire course. Usually the examiner then asked for a definition or a brief explanation so it was more a question of revising everything and committing it to memory. It is also worth bearing in mind that different UK institutions have different requirements for their students in terms of how many credits they must gain and whether, or at what level, they are required to pass each subject, so be clear about what standards apply to you at the outset.
There may be certain traditions or peculiarities of your university which make it all the more exciting but, at times, bewildering. From my experience, many lecturers would dress in formal gowns and some would walk out of the lecture if students were talking and would not return. Even more bizarrely, our lectures were often interrupted by a certain gentleman who would appear and settle down to sing and play his guitar for our entertainment.
What will you get out of your year?
It goes without saying that an Erasmus year looks good on the CV, but there are many more benefits than this. You can learn (at least one) foreign language in a year; you will meet people from all over the world and hopefully make lasting friendships; and you get to experience living in a foreign country and learn about a different way of life that you cannot pick up on from a holiday alone. An Erasmus year will broaden your horizons and boost your self-confidence enormously. You learn to adapt to a new environment and can find that something outside your comfort zone feels commonplace a few weeks later. It is a constant learning curve, but immensely satisfying and enjoyable. While everyone will have their own unique experience, there is nothing quite like an Erasmus year abroad. Profitez, as they say in France!