The following is an essay I wrote in the summer of 2010, comparing the education systems in the UK and USA, specifically for the 2 universities I studied at. Note that it is based on my experience and research, and not all universities compare the same way.
Universities around the world serve an important purpose – to educate students about their choosen field of study. Students are expected to do similar tasks and think in proscribed ways, yet, they graduate from curricula that are vastly different. Universities, regardless of location, produce professionals and intellectuals who fundamentally shape the world in which they will live. Students are expected to master a body of knowledge based on the cirricula that exists within their respective countries. While the goals of universities are similar worldwide, the structure of the educational system vary from place to place (ex. ‘college’ in England is roughly equivalent to the third and fouth years of high school in the United States, while ‘university’ in England is equivalent to our third and fourth years of university). Even though the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) share a common Anglo-Saxon derived culture, their ideals and practice within each education system differ vastly.
The goal of this paper is to illustrate similarities and differences in higher education programs between the United Kingdom and the United States, despite a common desire to generate adults who are ready to tackle the challenges of the world. This paper is the result of study at the University of Leeds (Leeds, England) and at the Colorado School of Mines (Colorado, United States). It is a preliminary examination based on participant observation as a student in both institutions.
The significant differences (in general) between UK and US education are outlined below:
||United States of America
|College begins at the age of 16, where students choose their field of study for university at 16
||College begins at the age of 18, where students choose their field of study
|Price of attending university is relatively small
||University costs are relatively high for students
|Students focus solely on their field of study
||Students focus on their major and peripheral subjects related to their major
|Undergraduate in university lasts 3 years
||Undergraduate lasts 4 years
|Learning responsibility primarily lies on the students
||Faculty and students share responsibility for learning
|Homework is rarely assigned, and the final exam is worth 80%+ of the final grade
||Homework makes up a large portion of the grade, and final exams are worth approximately 30%
|Grading system is out of 100, but grades above 75% are rare
||Grading system is out of 100, and 90%+ grades are common
|Social life is just as important if not more important than academics
||Academics dominate, and social life is not nearly as important.
|A masters is often required in order to become a professional
||A bachelors degree will often allow a student to obtain a well-paying occupation
The main differences between university study in the US and UK are outlined above, but it is the subtle differences in combination that really make the experience different, such as UK english vs. US english and ethos of the UK/US.
Children from ages 5 to 16 are required to attend school in the UK, either through state schools, independently, or home-schools (state schools are free) (“Office of Public Sector Information”). At the age of 16, students have a choice of whether they want to continue or not. If they continue, they will leave ‘school’ and attend sixth form (what they call ‘college), which is two years of pre-requisite courses for students interested in going to university. At the age of 16, students in the UK decide on what their field of study will be while in university. The courses they take at sixth form will be related to what they will study while at university (ex. an engineer will take mathematics/physics courses during sixth form). In order to pass sixth form, students need to pass standardized A-level tests. Students then apply to the universities of their choice. The scores that they receive on their A-levels are given to universities to help determine whether the student is accepted or not.
In the US, students are required to attend school until they are 16 via public or private schools, or by being home schooled. Students typically enter high school at the age of 14, and complete the four years of high school and graduate at 18. At the age of 18, students either have the choice to continue their education at university (also known as college in the US), or they can stop school and attempt to find work. Students electing to contine their studies will apply to universities of their choice. During the last two years of high school, students take a nationwide standardized test that covers math, science, reading, and writing (the test is either the ACT or SAT, depending on where you live and what university you’re applying to). The results on these tests along with the students’ average grade in high school help the universities determine whether or not the student gets accepted.
In the later parts of the British educational system (age 16 or older), students need to choose their field of study and then focus only on that field until they graduate and begin to work. The later part of the American system tends to be a bit more broad, meaning students get to experience many different fields of study before actually deciding to specialize in one. For example, a student who is educated in Britain will choose a major by the age of 17, and will only study that major for the following several years without getting much of a glimpse into other fields. For engineering, in general, all students in the US will take the same courses for the first two years of university, and then specialize for the remaining two years. This allows the student to decided on a field of study roughly at the age of 20, and at the same time allows the student to look at a whole range of fields that may interest them. The first two years (particularly for engineering) prepare the students in a way such that whatever field they decide to specialize in, they can without additional prerequisites.
Education and Economics
The structure of the courses (particularly at university level) and how they are taught are unique. The American system typically teaches students how to do something, and then forces the students to study immediately by assigning homework. British education sets students up to learn, and then a large piece of the learning process is studying for the final exam. The British are much more relaxed, in that they lecture, and expect each student to be ready for the final at the end of the year, while assigning little or no homework. It is my contention that differences in pricing structures affect expectations om the teaching and learning culture. Analysis of the cost structure provides at least a partial explanation for the resulting differences in teaching and learning strategies.
Both price and the culture of university make these differences understandable. British universities typically cost a specific, set price which is much, much less than the cost of a tyical American university. In the 2009/10 academic year, undergraduates in Britain (who are citizens of the UK) paid a maximum of £3,225 ($4,800) per year for tuition (“DirectGov”). As of 2007, students who live in Scotland, for example, can attend university in Scotland free (“Scottish Government”). The tuition fees that are paid by loans are loans taken out from the government, which are then repayed to the govenment after a student graduates and earns a certain level of income (Barr, and Crawford 2,4). If a student graduates and doesn’t make above a threshold salary, the loan won’t collect interest and the loan won’t have to be repayed until the graduate finds a sustainable occupation. This is quite different than the US in that students often pay interest on their loan while they’re studying (unsubsidized), otherwise loans begins to collect after you graduate (subsidized), regardless of whether the graduate finds a job or not.
The average price of tuition and fees for a four-year public American university is $7,020/year (for in-state students) (“Trends in College Pricing 2009 – CollegeBoard” 2). Out of state students typically pay two or three times as much as an in-state student in order to keep the state-to-state funding balanced. In the American education, since the cost of education is much higher, one could say that the responsiblity of learning is up to both the student and the school, since the students are paying the school to educate them. Although much of the learning is done when a student is studying for a final, most of the learning occurs when students are completing homework throughout the course of the year.
The differences in endowments between UK and US universities is massive. In the UK, only Cambridge and Oxford have endowments that are even close to the top US universities. Oxford and Cambridge each have endowments of £2B ($3.5B), which would rank 15th on the US list, while no other UK university would rank in the top 150 (“Sutton Trust” 1,4). 207 US universities have endowments over £100M (about $150M), while only five UK universities have endowments over that. Additionally, the top 500 universities in the US have an average endowment that is fifteen times that of the top 100 universities in the UK (“Sutton Trust” 1,4). These figures give a rough idea of how much more money is flowing through US universities than UK universities, and the price of university in each is reflected by this.
Culture Similarities and Differences
The culture of a US university, Colorado School of Mines, has different distinguishing features to aid education. During the school session, students are expected to be fully engaged in learning, and the professors assign graded homework to force students to practice solving problems and analyze situations related to their field of study. In general, US universities have less time off, and therefore have more contact hours with the faculty (in the UK, contact hours range from 5-20 hours a week as a full time student. For each contact hour, the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) suggests 1.5 hours of individual study [(Stefanovi?)]). Even during the time when classes aren’t in session, it is a common practice for professors to assign work in order to keep students actively learning. It isn’t uncommon to attend class all day, and then go home and study much of the night, every night of the school week. In fact, it is suggested that for every contact hour of class, a student should spend 3-4 hours revising the material (this is primarily at CSM, but is common throughout the US).
In order to further compare the similarities and differences between UK and US education (specifically around university level), lets look at the two universities that I’ve attended: Colorado School of Mines (CSM) in the US vs. Leeds University (LU) in the UK. To begin, these universities differ vastly in terms of what each university represents. CSM is a school of roughly 4,000 students, 3,000 of which are undergraduate. The primary focus of the school is engineering, mathematics, and computer science. LU on the other hand is a school of over 30,000 students and focuses on nearly ever field of study known. Therefore, the comparisons made are based on these two universities and are likely to differ as if the comparison was between LU and UCLA for example (two schools with a smilar number of students and fields of study). Additionally, at CSM (and most other US universities), students study for four years to get their bachelors degree, while at LU (and most other UK universities), students study for three years to get their bachelors degree or four years to get their masters degree. This alone implies that the structure of each system is very much different.
I studied at CSM for my first two years of university, and spent my third year in England at LU. The first two years at CSM are roughly equivalent to ‘college’ in the UK, which are the two years preceding university. At CSM, the first two years are full of general classes to get all students onto the same playing field. The third and fourth year are the years where students specialize in their field of study – Electrical Engineering (EE) in my case. At LU, students begin their first year by jumping right into their field of study. This means that up until I studied at LU, I had taken no courses which specialize in EE. When I went to LU, I had to pick courses that would transfer back, which leads to some interesting observations in the education systems.
Since students study for three years at LU (and all three years are full of courses directed at their field of study), I had to decide what level I should studying at. Before I left, I assumed I should take level one and two courses (1st and 2nd year modules) since I had no understanding of EE other than the basics that I learned during my first two years at CSM. Knowing that I would be graduating 1 year after returning from England, I also guessed that I should take level two and three modules, which in the end I did complete. Another issue was courses in England often last a full year (two semesters), while courses at CSM at always are 1 semester. Therefore, finding equivalent courses that would allow me to graduate on time was quite difficult.
In the EE department at LU, professors record most lectures via video and post it online. This allows students to go back and watch past lectures if needed. It also allows students who are direct entry students into second year to go back and watch the 1st year lectures. Every module I took at LU was recorded or documented well enough that I was able to catch up and understand the material. I found that first year in the EE department was a very basic introduction into EE topics such as optoelectronics, power systems, and basic math revision. Second year was a continuation of first year – meaning students took the same courses, just at a more in-depth level (i.e. optoelectronics 2, power systems 2, etc.). Additionally, during the first two weeks of the year, the second year professors did a thorough review of the first year topics so students could be refreshed on the material. Because of the way students study in the UK, this is a very necessary part of the courses, and helped me greatly in getting on the same playing field as all the other students. I found that the math courses were quite easy in terms of the material (it was all review for me), while the specific EE courses were still basic, but all the material was new. This is due to the fact that CSM focuses on math/science, which put me on a different level than the second year students at LU (whose focus isn’t just math/science).
The method of teaching modules/courses in LU differs from CSM. At CSM, professors typically will lecture twice a week, and in addition, students will get hands on work over the material that was lectured on. This would include either a lab or simply working problems to practice analyzing the material. Homework is also assigned to force students to learn outside of class. At LU, lectures are once, or twice a week at most. These lectures almost always consist of the professors running a powerpoint presentation, and at the same time handing out the presentation on paper for students to follow along. Homework is rarely be assigned, and if it is, it is typically not graded. Because of this method of teaching, students at LU have much more time outside of class which enables them to get out to the pub and socialize, relax, and meet new people. You could say that CSM (and other US universities) invites a more rigorous academic life at the expense of the social scene, while LU (and UK universites in general) gives active social development priority over building a strong intellectual background.
This leads into the vast differences of ethos between UK and US universities, specifically LU and CSM. Students typically head to university in the UK to ‘have fun’, placing that above the fact that they need to learn. Since the entire culture accepts this, a typical year will consist of one or two tests per class (one midterm worth 15-20% of the grade and one final consisting of the remaining 85-80% of the grade). Students typically attend class for an hour or two a day, and then head out to socialize with friends. This continues until about 3 weeks before exam time. During exam time, students dedicate themselves by locking themselves in their rooms and studying/revising the material of the entire year in 3 weeks. Additionally, at LU it is not uncommon to find a full time student attending classes for under 10 hours a week. At CSM, there is a minimum threshold of 14 credit hours in order to be a full time student (“Colorado School of Mines” Outreach).
Part of the education at British universities is not just to learn a field of study, but to also be socially active and learn about/from the people around you. It is very common for a British student union to have pubs/bars/lounges. This is connected to the relaxed atmosphere that the British education has – while you study, you have time to relax. But when it is exam time, you are expected to be fully focused on learning your field of study.
On the other hand, students go to US universities not necessarily to ‘have fun’, but instead to learn. The culture is built in a way which accepts this, and the price of university shows. Many claim that the price of university in the US is what causes the faculty to take such a large responsibility in a students learning. However, I disagree with this. The price is high simply because that is the way the culture has run universities for so long. UK universities are cheap because the UK is quite nationalized, meaning the goverment ‘standardizes’ a lot. For example, most loans taken out by students for university costs in the UK are from the goverment, and not a third party lender (like they are in the US). Health care and university costs are equal for everyone who is from the UK, no matter which university you go to or what dentist you use. The responsibility of learning in both the US and the UK lies on the students (no matter which country you’re in). In the US they don’t assign homework in order to make the faculty do their job, they do it because it is a proven method of learning that works. The UK doesn’t use homework as a teaching method as much simply because they would rather see a student having a cultivating social life than being locked in a room studying when they are outside of the classroom.
This leads to different motivations of students attending university. Students in the UK are less motivated to study, because they have rarely had to consistently study since that is the way their education has always been. Students in the US are typically motivated to study more because a higher GPA can give you scholarships and grants, and these students are used to studying on a regular basis. Nonetheless, the expectations of students when they receive their degree are quite similar. A large percent of students in the UK study for 3 years to get a bachelor’s degree, and then study 1 additional year to receive a masters (see expectations below). In the US, particularly at CSM, students tend to study hard for 4 years, graduate with a bachelors and get a fairly good job. According to Payscale as of 2010, CSM has an average starting salary of $61,600, with a ‘mid-career average salary’ of $113,00 (“PayScale”). LU has an average starting salary of £18,000 ($27,000), with a ‘mid-career average salary’ of £42,000 ($63,000) (“PayScale” Leeds).
The expectations of students graduating from universities in the UK and US are somewhat different. Becoming a professional engineer in the US varies from state to state. However, the general process requires a degree from an accredited 4-year university, passing an engineering test after graduating, and then working in industry for 3-4 years, where another test is then assessed (“Model Law”). In the UK, becoming a charted (professional) engineer typically requires a 3-year bachelors degree, as well as an additional 1 year masters degree. Furthermore, they must work in industry until they can demonstrate that they are professionaly competent. This process ranges from 4-8 years to complete after graduation (“Charted Engineering”). Comparing the US and UK, both processes analyze individuals based on their education, their experience, and their ability to perform as a professional engineer, and both countries produce quality engineers.
The student union’s also differ immensely in terms of the what they represent. In the UK and in the US, the union is run by a group of students (who are typically elected by the student body). These students make the union become what the students want. At CSM, the union is a place to relax, grab some food, or study. The union at LU is there to shop, get food, go to the bar, and party with fellow students. Studying at the LU union is practically unheard of. The purpose that each union serves is clear, and it is also shows the clear differences between US and UK university cultures.
There is a big variance in the grading system in universities in the UK and the US. At CSM (and US universities in general), the grading scale is from 0-100, with 100 being the highest. This means if you get 5/100, you get a 5%. Passing is typically 60% and above (anything below this is considered an F which is failing). Additionally, 90-100% is considered an ‘A’, 80-89% is a ‘B’, 70-79% is a D, and 60-69% is a D. Each letter grade is then put onto a 4.0 scale (A being a 4.0, B being a 3.0, etc.). This scale is then averaged together and a grade point average (GPA) is caluclated. This allows schools/employers to get a rough idea of how a student has performed at their time in university.
At LU (and UK universities in general), the grading school is typically out of 100 as well, with 100 being the highest. However, a 70-100% is considered a ‘First’, which is equivalent to an A in the US. Similarly, 60-69% is a ‘2.1’, 50-59% is a ‘2.2’, 40-49% is a ‘2.3’, and anything below is 40% is considered failing. Because of this grading system, tests are typically more difficult and grading is more strict. In engineering, getting a 60%+ and considered above average, while 70%+ is top of the class (equivalent to a first, which is the highest marks possible). Getting a 70%+ in a course in the UK is roughly equivalent to getting a 90%+ in a US course. To put this in perspective as a whole, for arts degrees such as english and history, writing a perfect essay will very rarely earn you marks over a 75% (even though there are 100 marks possible). Similar to the US grading system, the percentage that a student receives in each course is averaged together to see how a student has performed overall. There is no GPA however, so a 100% in one course and a 60% in another course will make your average a 80%, which is a ‘First’ (the highest you can get). In the US, if you received a 100% (4.0) and 60% (2.0), you’re average would be considered a 3.0, which is a B (which is not the highest you can possibly receive). Additionally, the first year of university doesn’t affect your average. A student is allowed to fail one module (receive less than 40% of the marks), and in all other modules if they at least pass, their average is unaffected first year. This is happens at some private universities in the US as well, but in general, all 4 years of university count toward your average in the US, while in the UK first year typically doesn’t count.
The overall picture is this: US education tends to be more rigorous and broad, while the UK tends to be more relaxed and narrow. The British tend to put social development ahead of intellectual development, while the Americans tend to do the opposite. The systems are very different, but not necessarily for the better of worse. The British have proven they can produce professionals of all kinds. Their civil engineers have built structures that are older than the US itself, while the US has produced electronic devices that are now world renowned. If the outcome is to produce a competent, innovative engineer, for example, both education systems have proven that they can certainly satisfy that in the end.
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I write for fun, I travel for fun, and I enjoy learning. I hate sugar-coating things. Understand the world in reality, not by dogma. Question everything.