My Love/Hate Relationship with Canada's Education System

I’m an outsider. I’m not Canadian and I’m not even a permanent student here; I’m on exchange for the year from The University of Nottingham in England. I’ve been studying at Western for nearly three months now, and it’s safe to say I’m finding it very strange. Strange because my feelings are so conflicted about this education system.

Firstly, I want to address the positives, and start off optimistic so as not to offend anyone. I’ll start by saying I love that all subjects here seem to have participation grades; I can only think of one department at my home university where this happens, and it’s a great idea in my books. It means people are more likely to attend class, it means people are more likely to actually do the assigned reading, and I like that here professors give you the opportunity to contribute in other ways if you aren’t confident enough to speak up in class. One of my courses, for example, lets you tweet the course hashtag or email the prof with some of your thoughts on the class if you don’t have the confidence to talk in front of your peers. I dig it.Oh, and my one big love of the Canadian system is having exams before the Christmas break. Thank you Canada for having exams before Christmas, because for the first time in four years, I don’t have to study over the Christmas break because I have exams in January.

I also like how there are a lot of methods of assessment,  from participation grades, to a review worth 10%, an essay worth 20% and the final exam worth 30% or whatever. I like that, because in one of my courses in England last year I had a 4,000 word assignment that was worth 75% of the course, and it was very stressful—if you messed up that assignment you messed up a large part of your year. So, in some ways I really like that here in Canada. I have lots of things to fall back on if I’m having a bad day and do terribly on my midterm. But I also hate this, and this is where I’m conflicted. I hate it because it means you constantly have an incredibly packed workload… all the time. There isn’t a week where you can relax a bit more because you don’t have an assignment due for two weeks; there is always an assignment due or a test you could be studying for. Because of this, I’ve watched my friends, who should be enjoying their first year at university, stress themselves to the point of breakdown because they have three assignments, four chapters of reading, a lab and two tests to study for in one week.

Canada, you’re expecting too much. Your first year of university can be enough of a struggle for students, adapting to a new life away from home, making friends and getting used to a different learning environment, and that is only made harder when they have a workload that nobody can reasonably handle. This goes hand-in-hand with something else I hate about the system here: the pressure to get the best grades possible and the threat of not being able to go into the major/minor you want to without achieving a 90 average or something as equally ridiculous. At most universities in England (although not all, and not all degree programs) your first year of university “doesn’t count.” You have to pass the year obviously, but there is absolutely no pressure to get the highest grades. When I told my Canadian friends this, they looked horrified and couldn’t seem to understand why this would happen. What’s the point of university if your first year doesn’t count, right? Well, actually, it makes a great deal of sense. In England we choose our major before we begin university, and this is the only thing we then study for three years, so we don’t need to get a certain grade to be able to declare a major in our second or third year. Also, as I just said, first year is tough enough without the added pressure of having to do well, so our universities give us first year to get used to how university works, to write essays that are terrible because we have no idea how to use Harvard referencing, and then learn these skills before second year when our grades start to count towards our final degree classification. Doesn’t that sound incredibly sensible? Having a year to adjust to the pace of university, living independently, being away from parents and actually enjoying a new city (and yes of course partying as well). Doesn’t it make sense to have a year that just lets you prepare? It does.

My love/hate aspect of the Canadian university system is really summed up with how everything here takes so long. I love it because I myself am doing a four year degree because I’ve chosen to do an exchange, but most degrees in England are just three years which, personally, I do not think is enough. Most of my friends are graduating next July, and I know full well that I would not be ready to graduate if I hadn’t done exchange. So, this is what I love about Canada, because to me four years is the perfect degree length. But I hate how long it takes here because if you want to become a doctor, you have to complete eight years of University. Or a dentist, teacher, lawyer and probably many other professions I don’t know about. Firstly, does the government here expect people to be able to afford this many years of education? Also, why is this necessary? Why is an undergraduate degree necessary beforehand? In England, if you choose to become a doctor or dentist, you take a five year university course which you start when you are 18 and graduate at 23, which sounds much more reasonable to me. If you want to be a lawyer or a teacher, it’s a three year degree like most other degrees in England. And are you going to tell me that qualifying after five years doesn’t sound much nicer than eight? Are you going to tell me that an English doctor isn’t as qualified as a Canadian or American doctor because they only did five years? No. So why does Canada make people pay and struggle through eight years of education when the same can be achieved in five years in England—and many other European countries.

So Canada, I think you could learn a thing or two from England about a balanced workload and how not to stress out your students to the brink of breakdown.