October is finally here! That means a return to university for me. This year is my final year of MA Law at the University of Bristol. I spent the past weekend reflecting on the differences between my former alma mater, McGill University, and experiences at Bristol. There are a few differences between the two countries and this post is based on my opinion and experience as a postgraduate international student here in the UK.*
University in the UK
Similar to the North American Ivy Leagues, the UK consists of Russell Group universities, which consist of 24 public research universities ranked to be the top within the United Kingdom. These include:
- University of Birmingham
- University of Bristol
- University of Cambridge
- Cardiff University
- Durham University
- University of Edinburgh
- University of Exeter
- University of Glasgow
- Imperial College London
- King’s College London
- University of Leeds
- University of Liverpool
- London School of Economics & Political Science
- University of Manchester
- Newcastle University
- University of Nottingham
- University of Oxford
- Queen Mary, University of London
- Queen’s University Belfast
- University of Sheffield
- University of Southampton
- University College London
- University of Warwick
- University of York
Russell Group universities are known for their prestige, shared focus on research and a reputation for academic achievement. Founded in 1994, these universities are awarded two-thirds of all UK research grants and contract incomes. Many consider the universities to provide a higher overall standard of teaching. The Office for National Statistics revealed in 2013 that Russell Group graduates earn an extra £3.63 compared to non-Russell Group colleagues [see table below].
University in Canada
Unlike the three years in the UK, an undergraduate degree in Canada takes four years (120 credits) to complete. Canada does not have a higher ranking set of universities that accompany a particular social class in the same way as the Ivy League system in the USA or the Russell Group universities in the UK. At least not that I know of! The Times typically provides an annual list of the best universities in Canada. however, attending one of those schools doesn’t make you better than the next candidate.
Currently, the top 5 Canadian universities (in rankings) are:
- The University of Toronto (Global ranking of 29)
- McGill University (Global ranking of 35)
- The University of British Columbia (Global ranking of 51)
Here are some examples of the good and the bad between University education in both countries:
1. Social Class
Your level (and quality) of education determines your social class in British society. Some argue it’s the other way around but I personally think it applies both ways. Diane Reay argues that we are still educating different social classes for different functions in society. Her book, Miseducation: Inequality, Education and the Working Classes, explains this point really well.
“But latest research shows that it is the wealth and inclination of parents, rather than the ability and efforts of the child, that have the most bearing on a child’s educational success today. If you’re a working class child, you’re starting the educational race halfway round the track behind the middle class child. Middle and upper class parents are able to guarantee their children’s educational success through private tuition, extra resources and enrichment activities.”England is still educating different classes for different functions in society
While it is understandable that government policy encourages universities to compete for the best students, the competition fuels elitism and writes off underprivileged students as unworthy of a higher class education.
On the other hand, an underprivileged student that receives the opportunity to attend a prestigious university will also have the opportunity to enter a higher social class. Why? When you graduate from an Oxbridge university, you are more likely to be hired by employers because of the arbitrary mark of “excellence”.
An Oxbridge opinion…
As Ben Chu argues, this is ‘poisonous for British social mobility, a monstrous affront to any reasonable conception of fairness’. The problem with “elitism” is its arbitrary exclusivity and not only that it privileges ability. If people in the UK paid less attention to which alma mater one attends and more to the impact a person can have to a business, a friendship etc., the world could be a less tedious and a more just place.
2. Lack of Guidance
To ask for guidance, without 10 minute allotted meeting times with the tutor, is almost unheard of here. Everything has 10-minute time limits, including GP appointments (but more on that later). The only advice I have received from the course tutors or my personal tutor is to read, then read some more. As an international postgraduate student, this isn’t good enough. Once paper topics are released, the tutor is unable to discuss the topic or whether you’re following the right mindset. This is mind-boggling because you’re essentially thrown into a pool, without knowing (hypothetically, of course) how to swim and have to hope that reading more will somehow help produce a 70%+ paper.
While at McGill…
Comparing this to McGill, another highly research-intensive university in Canada, guidance was always available. From the Professors to the TAs, to wellbeing services and more. My Professors gave me their undivided attention and would actually care about where I’m going wrong, what I’m not understanding and give genuine advice on how to improve my coursework and exam writing skills. My professors were mainly Ivy League scholars, and despite being occupied with their research, were more than happy to ensure their students were enjoying what they studied. The professors at McGill acted as my support system for academics and all things university life. They also allowed me to recognise that I can achieve and succeed in anything with the right people by my side.
*A more honest review of this issue will be released next summer, once my current course is complete.
3. Work Ethic
If you think you’re working hard, you’re obviously not working hard enough. Adopting a very ‘hands-off’ approach, universities in the UK hold you solely responsible for your success and your failure. As they should. The sooner you recognise this and integrate that into your work ethic, you will start succeeding academically and professionally. No sympathy will be given and you will receive a nudge to “take a break” if you cannot handle the pressure.
In Canada, a hand-holding culture exists (for undergraduates anyway), which is nice to a certain extent. Most Canadian universities allow students to resit uncapped exams or entire classes if they haven’t done as well as they had expected or passed. Meanwhile, in the UK, if you fail the resit, you will likely be required to resit the entire year.
One thing I have learned from this past year is that hard work will never disappoint you, so push yourself because no one else is going to do it for you.
4. To Attend or Not Attend?
Most universities in the UK use Replay video capture to record lectures and as a result, we see more students opting to stay home rather than attend lectures.
In Canada, most of my Professors refused to record the lecture or upload lecture notes until the end of the term. This was because they recognised that the more necessary it becomes for a student to attend, the better they’ll do in the course.
I’m guilty of this–if I can stay in the comfort of my own home and save the cost of commuting back and forth, I’ll gladly take that option. (Though of course, this is not realistic and does actually impact how well you do if you’re not productive at home!)
5. Ability to Succeed
Whether you attending university in the UK or abroad, your ability to succeed is not ultimately defined by your degree result. It is completely possible and there are prime examples of people who have achieved great success without completing or even doing very well academically. Here are just a few:
“The more you believe in your own ability to succeed, the more likely it is that you will.“
Times are changing…
From speaking to many recruiters and reading many articles on LinkedIn and beyond, it seems that the UK’s (and Canada’s!) employment culture of only hiring First Class (4.0 GPA) students is slowly fading away. Employers are looking for more well-rounded candidates, who have valuable skills to contribute beyond being able to write exceptional University exams.
While I began postgraduate studies straight after completing my degree at McGill, it is highly unlikely that my degree result would have stopped me from achieving a bright and successful future. The same goes for any university in the UK.
There are two things you are in control of in life: your attitude and your effort. Make it count.
If you plan on attending university abroad, think about the cultural differences you may encounter and whether you’re prepared mentally and academically to adjust to those standards. If I can do it, you can too!
*I am always open to discussion on this topic! This is a platform for us to engage, learn and share as much as we can with each other.