College vs. Uni: 4 Differences Between the American and English University Systems

Alicia Hamilton is a History student at Harvard University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at University College London in England in 2016. Alicia is an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-to-Study Program.  

As an American in England, I am learning all over again what it means to be a college student. Almost a month at the University College London has exposed me to the differing ways in which English students are taught, treated, and assessed in the UK higher education system. Every day I learn something new as I work to adjust to life as a student at “uni.” Here are the top 4 differences I’ve noticed:

Note to the Reader: College and university are often interchangeable terms in the US. But “college” in the UK is strictly a two year program usually attached to a high school where students focus on specific coursework or vocational training.

1. One paper/exam determines your grade.

One of the first major differences between the US and UK university systems that I noticed was their different methods of assessment. As a History major in the States I am usually assessed by a series of essays, class participation, and one or two exams. However, I was shocked and a little terrified to learn that at the end of my term in the UK, my entire grade would be based on my performance on two essays of about 2,500 words each. Although this is a daunting prospect to me, in the UK it is common for your final mark to be determined by a single essay or exam.

2. Less class, more homework.

The amount of time a student spends in the classroom also varies greatly in the UK. For each of my 4 courses at the University College London, I will only spend a total of about 20 hours in lectures and seminars. In fact I have somehow managed to have a schedule that includes no Thursday or Friday classes and only about 4 hours of instruction per week for the three days that I am in the classroom.

I have somehow managed to have a schedule that includes no Thursday or Friday classes and only about 4 hours of instruction per week.

Though my initial thought was to use this extra time exploring the European continent, I quickly realized that I was expected to use this free time to complete substantial amounts of additional readings. Each class syllabus includes a list of optional/recommended readings that are meant to help students develop a deeper understanding of the course material. Whether or not you do them is often reflected in your grade.

3. No more late-night study sessions.

College vs. Uni: 4 Differences Between American and English University Systems
UCL’s main entrance.

Though I’m used to working on assignments well into the wee hours of the morning, most English students seem to be strictly 9-5 workers. Unlike the 24/7 libraries at my home university, the libraries at UCL actually close early on certain days of the week, even during exam periods. By following a workday schedule, the UK student leaves their weeknights free to spend socializing. Thus I have had to get used to people blasting pop music from their rooms on Monday nights as I frantically work to finish the next day’s assignments.

4. You start out a scholar.

Also unlike at my home university, students in the UK enter university already as part of a specific academic department. (I didn’t declare my major until the fall of my sophomore year.) In fact, British students are expected to enter uni with a course (for instance, “American English: major”) and stick to it. There is no such thing as a liberal arts education in the UK. So while I, as a History major, have studied everything from Global Health to the Public Education system, my English peers have spent the last three years taking coursework solely in History.

In a sense, college students in the UK are treated as scholars with a passionate interest in a specific topic, while in the States we are undecided apprentices free to try out various fields until we find our niche.

While I miss the freedom to explore and test my abilities that the liberal arts curriculum in the States allows me, I am also looking forward to honing my skills as a historian while in the UK. I am excited for the intellectual challenge that my semester abroad will bring and how the skills of self-directed learning that I am building abroad will enrich my college experience at home.

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