Getting the IT education you need without the debt: Could studying abroad be the answer?

Romania's universities have classes in English, German and French, and with degrees recognised across the EU, could the country hold the key to a debt-free education?

Students who want to dodge the tens of thousands of euros in fees and living expenses that come with getting a degree in IT might want to consider Romania.

Landing a good job in technology often means spending several years at university, and racking up a huge bill. However, there are ways to cut the cost of education, including studying abroad. Romania, Europe's software development powerhouse , could prove a cheaper option worth considering: fees are only a fraction of those found in the UK or US, and a student with a part-time job can break even at the end of the year. Student essentials, too, are wallet-friendly: students at Bucharest's campus Regie can land themselves a large pizza for a mere €3, for example.

Student pay

Romania has long been an academic destination for overseas students mainly for its medical schools, with young people coming from Israel, France, the UK, Italy, Greece, or the US to study there. Technology courses are quickly catching up, and already the most sought-after field of study in the country. Microsoft, Intel, Oracle, and HP have offices here and pay students attractive salaries compared to the country average.

Most universities have a fee of around €600-€900 a year for students coming from European Union countries. "Fees for EU students are identical to the ones for Romanian students," a spokesperson for the University of Bucharest told ZDNet. "The fee for computer science for non-EU countries is €270 a month", or a total of €2,430 a year.

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Fees and living expenses might seem low compared to Western Europe. However, they are far from affordable for many locals. Students have repeatedly protested in recent years against rising fees. The National Alliance of Student Organisations in Romania recently announced that 81 percent of the country's universities have put up their fees in the past three years. It has raised concerns earlier this year about nepotism surrounding state universities, asking for the resignation of education minister.

Last academic year, a total of 11,401 foreign students pursued an undergraduate degree in Romania, the Ministry of Education told ZDNet.com. Another 1,015 studied for a masters, and 313 were PhD students. "Degrees obtained in Romania are recognised by default in the European Union. For non-EU states, there are several agreements," the ministry said.

First choice for overseas students that want a technology degree in Romania is Polytechnic University of Bucharest, and more than 500 young people from abroad are enrolled in one of its faculties.

The university's Faculty of Engineering in Foreign Languages (FILS) offers classes taught in English, French, and German, with the most popular fields of study IT and applied electronics.

Apart from the Polytechnic University, another option in the capital of Romania is University of Bucharest, which had 13 foreign technology students last year — all of them studying in Romanian. "The admissions process takes about five months, but it depends on the formalities for obtaining a visa," the University of Bucharest told ZDNet.com.

Some students have opted to study the language during a preparatory year before starting at the university. One such student is Mikele Shtembari. He moved from his native Albania to Bucharest three years ago to study computing and information technology in Romanian, and said he adapted quickly. Romanian belongs to the same language group as Spanish, Italian, or French.

Low cost of living

"I wanted to study abroad. I've found a scholarship here. The university is known to be quite good. I've applied at the Romanian Embassy in Albania [for a study visa] and because of my good grades I've been accepted," he said.

His scholarship covers the fee paid by foreign students and the cost of accommodation. On top of this, Mikele receives €65 a month in cash. "I need between €150 and €200 a month at minimum for food and other purchases," he said. After graduation, he hopes to find a job at a tech company in Western Europe.

According to a rigorous study (PDF) published by The Romanian Agency for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, almost three-quarters of students expect to find a job in the field they study at universities.

Living costs in the Romanian capital of Bucharest are far lower than in Western Europe. A studio is rented here at an average of €245 a month, according to a recent analysis by real estate website imobiliare.net.

A student can use the subway system for less than €7 a month for unlimited number of journeys. If in a hurry to take an exam, a taxi is €0.33 per km.

Food also comes at affordable prices. Street food is mainly influenced by Arabic cuisine, but a traditional product is hot pretzel with poppy seeds, just €0.20. Restaurants located in the Bucharest University's Regie campus offer a variety of international and local dishes, with a pizza or large salad priced at €3. And, perhaps the best news for students, a bottle of beer is just €1.

Part time jobs

A survey done by The National Alliance of Student Organisations in Romania in 2011 found that 70 percent of students have less than €113 a month for living expenses, and one in four had less than €68.

About a quarter of students take part time jobs in order to support themselves. "Freshmen and sophomores can land a job in an outsourcing company, at a call centre. There is a part time option and this is the kind of job that's in tune with their skills," said Maria Hostiuc, an ICT recruitment consultant at Brainspotting.

At the moment, around 20 percent of the jobs available on the market are flexible and can fit a student's schedule. "A candidate who speaks not only English but German as well is better paid. I'd say that a part time job can bring between €220 and €385 a month," Hostiuc said.

Perhaps an even better option is an internship at a tech company, usually paid with €220 to €340 a month, Hostiuc said. "In Bucharest, these salaries are usually up to €100 higher than in the rest of the country," according to the HR specialist.

Universities and authorities are trying to adapt the curriculum to the job market by signing agreements with companies. Over 100,000 students will receive public money this year if they want to take an internship at a company.

Living costs in the countryside

The picturesque region of Transylvania has, too, a couple of options for foreign students who want to study technology. Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca had in total 772 international students last academic year, who came from Asia, Latin America, Africa or America. There are classes taught in English, German, Hungarian, and French.

EU students pay a fee of €570 a year for mathematics and computer science, and €680 a year for a degree in computer science only. There are also computer science in economics and computer science in accounting for €570 a year. Those coming from a country not in the EU have a fee of €300 a month, according to the university.

"Foreign students can study for free at Babes-Bolyai University as part of several different schemes: the Erasmus programme, Erasmus Mundus, CEEPUS, or based on bilateral agreements between universities," representatives of Babes-Bolyai University told ZDNet. Its faculty of mathematics and computer science had, last academic year, six foreign students coming from Syria, Tunisia, the US, Nigeria, Albania, and Vietnam.

Other options for overseas students include Technical University of Cluj Napoca, Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iasi, West University of Timisoara, and Bucharest University of Economic Studies that teaches economic cybernetics.

How Romanian universities compare to Western ones

In terms of fees and living expenses, Romania has very few competitors in the European Union. But for students wondering where to pick up a degree, the quality of their teaching will also be front of mind.

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Saleh Farazi attended Polytechnic University in Bucharest between 2003 and 2008, after his family moved from Iran to Romania. He studied information technology in English for five years and now Farazi is doing a PhD in business Administration and technology management at the Universidad Pablo de Olavide de Sevilla, Spain. His thesis is focused on the dynamics of choice of partner in strategic alliances in the high-tech sector.

The best part of studying in Romania was, he says, "the cooperative atmosphere among the students, and their helpfulness". For him, it took about a year to adapt to his new home.

"The ease of entering the Dean's office was my first shock. No secretary, no need to book an appointment, just knock and enter! Also, not having enough canteen space was a shock, but I later understood that Romanians don't care that much about eating. We sometimes had no lunch break at all, with classes from 8am to 6pm and only 10 minute breaks," he said.

Comparing the two countries in which he studied, he said: "It is way more difficult to get a university degree in Spain than in Romania."

In Romania, most of the universities, together with Education Ministry, started to use anti-plagiarism software in the recent years, after several scandals including even state officials surfaced.

This fall's QS World Rankings featured a number of Romanian universities in its rankings of the best 800 institutions in the world. It takes into account academic reputation, employer reputation, staff-student ratio, citations per faculty, proportion of international students, and proportion of international faculty. Massachusetts Institute of Technology ranked first for the third year in a row, followed by Cambridge and Imperial College of London. Harvard and Oxford came next.

The ranking put University of Bucharest on the 651-700 places group, with Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj Napoca, Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iasi and West University of Timisoara on the 701+ group.

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