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A Scholar in Scotland: Learning lessons in the British system of higher education

By Talia Stol, courtesy of Abroad View
Associated Content

As a student from Northwestern studying abroad, Talia Stol was forced to re-evaluate her expectations as an American.

"Bloody hell," I sighed, trying out an expression I felt appropriate to both my new Scottish home and my current situation. After attempting to contact university tech support for the third time in order to connect to the Internet from my room, I was once again rebuffed by the automated "off-hours" message.

"How can they be closed the day before classes, and on a weekday?" I wondered. My thoughts turned nostalgically to the joys of my American school's online registration system compared to the chaotic morning I had spent rushing from department to department on the University of Edinburgh campus. There was apparently no master list of where classes were scheduled to meet, online or otherwise, that students could consult; the only place to find a class location was within its department building.

After finding two of my classes with relative ease, I had gone to several departments before tracking down the Canadian Studies Centre housed in its own building on one side of George Square, the academic hub of the university. With a feeling of triumph, I found the room. Breathing a sigh of relief, I left the building, noting a plaque identifying the site as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's home for five years in the 1880s. The city was dripping in history, with similar plaques adorning what seemed like every other building or doorway, informing us that John Calvin died here, Robert Burns wrote here, David Hume philosophized here.

Though I was enchanted by my new surroundings--gothic spires, medieval cobblestone streets, folk music pubs, and Indian food on every corner--my biggest challenge was adjusting to the different educational climate in the United Kingdom.

I was transitioning from a world of university-provided cable, vegan-friendly cafeterias, and state-of-the-art athletic facilities to a land of Spartan single dormitories, meat-and-potato diets, and a higher education system that was decidedly not user-friendly. In short, I had left the university-as-business paradigm and entered the university-as-privilege one. The "find yourself" mantra that defines the college years in the States didn't exist in Scotland. The slogan instead seemed to be "prove yourself worthy." Of course, these statements oversimplify the reality of both systems, but they also reflect certain underlying themes.

Contrasts between the British and American systems of higher education played a prominent role in my study abroad experience. Discussions comparing the two among both American and British friends served as a jumping off point for many tangential discussions about fundamental differences between the two cultures.

The British "Uni" represents an attitude toward education that encourages independent learning over course packets and outlines, and less class time in favor of more time for private study. The British high school experience is less indulgent--or less nurturing--than ours. Students are expected to create their own structure and design their own course of study, focusing on a few topics rather than the "well-rounded" curriculum that characterizes American schooling.

The results of A-levels or "Highers," AP-like exams taken at the end of high school, form the sole basis for admittance into Uni; high school transcripts are non-existent. These tests also determine one's course of study, and a change in that course means starting over from the beginning. Performance criteria are high, and getting a "first"--above 70 percent in a class--requires work at a publishable standard, a fact that riled those of us used to American grade inflation. While in the States the message seems to be that anything is obtainable with hard work, this alternate grading system seems to suggest that only a select few are capable of producing extraordinary work. There is no "A for effort."

However, higher standards in some areas were balanced by lowered burdens in others. During my two-day orientation session, one lecturer told us that students rarely buy the books needed for a class. I could see the expression of relief on my fellow Americans' faces when they realized they would not have to convert their accustomed $200-plus book expenses into pounds. This was followed, however, by looks of discomfort when it dawned on us that this meant everyone must find most of their books at the library, competing with hundreds of other students for the same texts. The practical aspect of this is that, for most courses, the instructor provides a large selection of recommended readings, usually 20 books or more, which students are expected to sift through. Rather than focus on two or three core texts, we had to extrapolate major themes and focus on points of interest by reading selectively from a range of available literature.

It was the more subtle differences between my home and adopted nation that made for the most interesting conversations. My English friend Adam once asked me, with that British matter-of-fact inflection that makes questions sound like statements, "So, let me get this straight. You?re expected to live in the same room as a complete stranger for a year or more? I mean, you're expected to cohabitate and share your most intimate possessions and moments with this other adult whom you've never met?" My instinct was to defend this practice as a character-building exercise that teaches cooperation, perseverance, and compromise. Instead I resignedly admitted, "Well when you put it that way . . ."

As I experienced the Edinburgh seasons of Winter, Rainy, and Windy, I found that most of my judgments about the British educational culture came down to a "Well, when you put it that way" mindset. The British preference for depth over breadth did have its advantages in producing specialists over American Renaissance men and women with a superficial understanding of a range of subjects.

The earlier focus on career shortens the amount of time spent in university before being able to enter certain job markets. For instance, medical students and law students begin their professional training their first year; "pre-med" or "pre-law" majors are non-existent. Thus, instead of four years of undergraduate study plus three to six years of graduate school, students are certified lawyers and doctors upon graduation from Uni. While this system has its advantages, I'm grateful that my American education has given me the opportunity to explore multiple interests because I had no idea what I wanted to do when I entered college.

The first few weeks after my arrival in Edinburgh, I expected life to be how it was in America. I wanted my IT person on the phone. I wanted my reading list to consist of four or five required books instead of 30 or so "recommended" readings. And I wanted my cafeteria to have a salad bar. Eventually though, I weaned myself off my reliance on the Internet, learned to enjoy skimming through multiple books and focusing only on the parts I found interesting, and became intimately acquainted with Indian fast food and sandwich shops all over the city--I was master of the 3 Pound meal.

Being forced to adjust to a different educational structure made me realize the contradictions nestled within the American "Frontier Spirit." We want to explore, but we want institutions accommodating enough for us to stray off the path without consequences. We want to better ourselves through education, but we demand bang for our buck in the form of facilities, services, and academics. We are independent thinkers who are dependent on the Internet and other technologies that make life easier. We are ardent individualists, yet our society has decided that sharing a 15-by-15-foot room with another person is an essential part of the college experience.

Perhaps the definition of "independence" and the expectations that come with it differ from culture to culture. The same goes for the term "education," as I experienced the ways in which it can be broadly or narrowly defined. My own definitions were challenged and revised in the process of realizing this fact. Although negotiating a new system required more legwork in search of answers, I'm glad I was forced to confront the questions. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would be proud.

Talia Stol is a political science and international studies major at Northwestern University. During her junior year, Stol studied in Scotland with Arcadia University.

This article was reprinted with permission from Associated Content, The People's Media Company. Visit today to publish your own content and explore AC's growing multimedia library.

© 2008 Associated Content, Inc.

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