How Are British Universities Different from American Colleges?

How Are British Universities Different from American Colleges?


I have just started my year abroad at Leeds Beckett University in Leeds, England after a full year at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland. Even though I have only been in Leeds for three weeks, I have picked up on many differences between the cultures and especially between university experiences. Here is what I have discovered so far:



1. “College” and “University” Are Different


In the UK, the words “college” and “university” are not synonymous. In fact, they refer to different types of schooling altogether. After high school in the UK students go to college, which is like a preparatory time of studying for university. UK students must take several exams and/or earn different qualifications in order to get into a university. College is a time to prepare for these difficult tasks that will hopefully send them on to higher, university-level education. University is what Americans would refer to as “college.”



2. You Can’t Switch Your Major


British students are amazed at the fact that American students switch their majors so frequently. (By the way, in the UK, a major is referred to as a “course” and your classes are referred to as “modules.”) Once you have turned in the exam scores and qualifications to your chosen university and they have hopefully accepted you as a student, your path ahead is very straightforward. For the most part, your classes are laid out for you for the (usually) three years of university that it takes to complete your course. It is rare that UK students will change their course, but almost unheard of to change it more than once. Usually, if students do not like their course, they will just drop out.



3. You Only Take Classes In Your Major


This is another reason why it is more difficult for UK students to change courses. When you switch your major in the UK, you are basically starting university all over again. UK students only take classes that have to do with their major and typically only take three classes per semester. There are no general classes that you have to take. In fact, British students think that taking general classes in university would be like going to high school all over again.



4. There Are Different Parts to Your Classes


In the United States, students are used to showing up for a class and receiving all elements pertaining to that class right then and there. In the UK, classes are broken up into lectures, seminars, tutorials, and workshops. A lecture is typically the largest class size and consists of going into a room and listening to your professor (or “tutor”) talk about the topic. There will usually be a PowerPoint and Q&A portion. Lectures are for the tutor to deliver information and for you to jot it down in your notebook. However, either a few hours later in the day or directly after your lecture you may have a seminar, tutorial, or workshop. I have a tutorial for Digital Visual Effects, so after learning about the material in my lecture, my class went into a computer lab and worked one-on-one with the tutor and his assistant on a project using computer graphics software. In my English class I have a Seminar, where we discuss material and do group-work together. I do not have any workshops, but have been told that they are more hands-on and how-to class periods. Seminars, lectures, and tutorials have a generally smaller class size than lectures.



5. There is No GPA


British students do not have a GPA and only receive their grades (or “marks”) at the end of the semester.



6. There Are Only a Handful of Grades


As an American college student, I am used to receiving grades for participation, attendance, homework, essays, small projects, final projects, midterms, finals, and maybe even some extra credit sprinkled in there somewhere. You can imagine my amazement when I walked into Digital Visual Effects and was told there was one project worth 40% of my grade due in November and another project worth 60% of my grade due in December. I am generally finding that there are about two grades per class, while some classes only have one final worth 100% of your grade. While my tutors are extremely helpful and provide many internal and external resources for learning, I can’t help but feel like the pressure is on.



7. You Have Way More Free Time


My schedule at Leeds Beckett University is as follows:



3PM-4PM Digital Visual Effects Lecture

4PM-6PM Digital Visual Effects Tutorial



9AM-10AM Screenwriting Lecture

11AM-1PM Screenwriting Tutorial



9AM-10PM Literatures of Romanticism Lecture

3PM-5PM Literatures of Romanticism Seminar   



As an exchange student, this is quite nice as it allows me plenty of time to explore Leeds and the surrounding areas. Although my classmates tell me that I will be spending a lot of time studying, I can’t help but feel fairly confident in my abilities after surviving five different classes that all occurred several times over the week at Towson University.



8. Clubs & Pubs


What do a lot of British students do with their free time? Go to clubs and pubs, of course! UK University students really take advantage of the fact that you can drink at 18. There are dancing clubs around every corner and sometimes stacked right next to each other. Many students (especially Freshmen, or “Freshers”) can be found at the club nearly every night of the week. However, this is not a strictly British concept, as most places in Europe have a lower drinking age and experience the same kind of clubbing culture.


Oh, and everyone smokes cigarettes. Everywhere. All the time.



9. Less School Spirit


Many of the British students I have met that have studied abroad in America were totally shocked at our colleges’ welcome ceremonies. In fact, one student had even studied at Towson University and spoke about how loud it was with all the people, fight songs, flags, mascots, and school spirit. Of course, I thought it was very strange to have induction in a tiny room where one person gives an hour long PowerPoint presentation. And with our school mascot being a rose, there really wasn’t much room for mascots to hype up what was essentially a classroom.


The induction ceremony aside, I’ve learned that British students don’t really have the patriotism or pride of American students. Although in all fairness I guess that’s just America’s whole thing, never mind how annoying we can be about it. There aren’t big football games or cheerleaders or marching bands. While there are sports games and students can get really into them, it really isn’t the same vibe as a Friday night football game.


Another thing that surprised me was the complete lack of a school store. At Towson there is an actual, physical shop where you can get pretty much anything you want with a tiger on it. At Leeds Beckett the “Campus Shop” is actually a tiny convenience store with three t-shirts, three hoodies, and three jackets. All of these jackets have the same design, which is just the school name, and they all come in three colors: purple, black, and grey. So far, I have really only seen a small handful of people wearing them. This contrasts greatly to Towson where you are given so many free school shirts in the first week that you didn’t need to bother packing any t-shirts in the first place.



10. Less Social


You would think that the clubbing culture would evoke a more social atmosphere than what really exists in England. While everyone is very friendly and happy to see you, you can’t strike up a conversation with a stranger like you can in America. Also, since students are generally put in classes according to their course, they really only interact with other students in that course. Since school clubs aren’t as popular and all of your roommates (or “flatmates”) have their own rooms, you don’t really get a chance to make friends from all different courses or share your life story with a roommate every evening unless you’re really trying.



11. What’s a Dorm?


Dorms are foreign concept to British students. Every time I describe my living situation freshman year to British students they look at me as if I had been living in jail all year. The thought of living in the same room with someone seems absolutely repulsive here, whereas at home I had simply embraced it as part of the traditional American college experience.


Students in the UK usually start out in shared apartments (or “flats”) of five or six people where everyone has their own private bedroom and a shared kitchen and living space. Sometimes there will be private bathrooms and sometimes there will be two to three bathrooms. Others stay in single flats by themselves or rent a house with friends. While many American students tend to  stay in dorms their first year and then migrate away from them later on, UK students live in privacy a lot sooner. However, this also means that they have to learn to cook a lot sooner, especially since there aren’t any real dining halls on campus.



12. Attendance Isn’t Mandatory


It’s true! British students generally have the idea that you only need to go to class if you need help with the subject or if particularly important information is being shared. However, tutors post all of the information students need online including full printouts and PowerPoints of everything that was covered in the Lecture. In fact, I even have one tutor who records all of his lectures for the sole purpose of posting them online so that students can simply learn from home. His philosophy is that since we are paying for the education, we should have access to everything regarding the class. Hearing this as an American student was absolutely hilarious and honestly baffling. I am very excited for that class.



13. Everyone is Dressed Up All the Time


I have been in the UK for three weeks and I have not seen a single person wearing sweatpants. In fact, I hardly see anyone in yoga pants and you can forget about the idea of wearing pajamas to class. I feel like I have to dress up to go to the grocery store here. Furthermore, everyone just appears to be very healthy, as walking is a big part of your life in Leeds. It just looks like people take the time in the morning to be presentable instead of rolling out of bed and into the city. Many people wear skirts and dresses, even in the cold weather, and the go-to shoes are loafers. I thought that I had packed a good mix of clothing, but after being here for almost a month I am now realizing that the only time I can wear my t-shirts are to bed unless I can find a way to dress them up somehow.  



14. Less Club-Crazy


After reading Leeds Beckett’s claim to have any club I could ever want to join on campus, I was a little shocked to find that there were only about three web pages of clubs to join. Going into the experience, I knew that Greek clubs were a wholly American concept and that I wouldn’t find anything along those lines. However, I would venture to say that the selection is fairly limited. There are sports teams for almost every sport you could think of, but apart from that it is a little difficult to find clubs that suit your exact interests. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing! There is nothing wrong with branching out and enjoying new experiences. While there isn’t a film club at Leeds Beckett, there is an Art Society that watches films together, so I’ve found a happy medium for myself.


Also, clubs are much more laid back. There are no screening processes for clubs and no attendance policies. In fact, some clubs don’t have formal meetings at all, and just come together when an event or workshop pertaining to their club is happening. Clubs aren’t a serious commitment, but instead places to pop in and say hello whenever you are free.



15. More Laid Back

Perhaps the biggest adjustment of all has been how laid back people are here, especially in a university setting. However, the laid-back atmosphere can be very frustrating, especially in terms of university. Communication was a big problem for me when I was signing up for classes. Sometimes I would send emails and get a response weeks later or never at all. I got my schedules (or “timetable”) a week before my classes started, having hardly any inkling of what they were going to be before that time. Furthermore, information isn’t well distributed in my own opinion. It seemed that if I had a question at Towson, I could find the exact department, exact building, and exact office to go to in order to have that question answered. I was told exactly who my professors were and who my advisors were, how to contact them, when to contact them, and in fact, was contacted by them directly. Here, I hardly have a clue where to go or who to talk to when I have specific questions. Sometimes I would have people emailing me who were apparently important to my learning experience, but I had absolutely no idea who they were. Also, unless you know exactly where to go, information simply won’t be given to you, and many times it can be very difficult to figure out where to go in the first place. So far, I feel as though British universities are considerably more disorganized than American colleges.


On the other hand, the more relaxed state of being is a great thing. Tutors could care less if you eat a snack, drink your coffee, go on your laptop, or text on your phone during a lecture. Phones go off in class and no one even flinches. On the first day of class, tutors jump right into the content and make a few jokes instead of telling you how you’re all going to fail their exam and end up repeating their class until you die. British classrooms provide a much more relaxed atmosphere where the tutors are very approachable and there is no such thing as raising your hand to contribute to a class discussion. In fact, everyone everywhere is just more laid back. No one is really in a rush to get anywhere, people respect who gets to the bus stop first as to who boards the bus first, and everyone is so friendly. Clerks at convenience stores are genuinely happy to be talking to you and even (imagine this) smile at you. It’s nice to see that even though Leeds is rainy and windy, the weather doesn’t tend to get people down.