Editor’s Note: One of the main reasons why people choose to study abroad is to reach their potentials in a system that suits their personalities to flourish. The education system contributes mainly in shaping the mindset and perspectives of those who have gone through it. This time, Indonesia Mengglobal gets to hear the perspectives from our contributor who has studied in the USA and in the UK.
While both are world-renowned, the US and the UK have different approaches when it comes to implementing higher education. Based on my experience, the US offers more wholesome campus experience, while the UK is strong in academic rigor. Depending on what every student values and aspires to, one education system may be a better fit compared to the other. The US would be great to shape your leadership, interpersonal, and entrepreneurial skills, while the UK can train you to become a thinker and a visionary with in-depth expertise. While overall I prefer the US, I believe both offer unique experiences and skills sets to the personal and professional development of the graduates.
I need to put a disclaimer in advance that the thoughts and assessments that I am about to share are bounded by many limiting factors and contexts. First, my experience might be different from those who studied different fields. Second, it is possible that some differences that I observed between the two are due to the different level of education that I pursued in each country (undergrad in the US versus postgrad in the UK). Third, and this is perhaps most obvious, my experience in one institution in the US might not be the most accurate representation of the whole education system in the US, and likewise in the UK. It is highly likely that others who have experienced studying in both countries would have different opinions than mine. But I hope this could be a discussion opener especially for readers who are still exploring their options.
I had the privilege of experiencing the US and UK education system throughout my academic career. I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) for my undergraduate degree, graduated in 2014 with a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree triple majoring in Political Science, Economics, and International Studies, and minoring in German. In the same year, I went to the UK for my postgraduate study, earning a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree in Public and Social Policy two years later from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Both are great schools, of which I am a proud alumna. But my experience in UW is different from that in LSE on many levels.
First, the grading system. The UW and many other US universities typically spread their grading criteria over many different aspects according to proportions. For example, your final grade for a course might be composed of homework (20%), midterm exams (25%), participation in class discussion (20%), and final exam (35%). This means major assignments and class engagement would be appreciated and would contribute to your final grade. In the UK, however, all courses put significant weight onto final exams – 60, 70, or even 100% (four out of my five final exams last year were worth 100%, which was stressful).
In this case I prefer the US system, as I believe it is fairer and can better reflect a student’s performance throughout the course. A single test is not only a rigid and inaccurate representation of a student’s merit and capability, it could also discount her hard work and discipline in keeping up with the readings and homework throughout the term.
Universities in the US offer a more wholesome student life and campus experience compared to those in the UK. The UW for example, houses >700 student organizations that accommodate varying interests across sports, arts, subjects, leadership, and Greek life. Academic support, career services, leisure activities, and campus facilities (libraries, labs, shops, etc.) are of top quality and designed to provide students with seamless and wholesome student life. There is a strong sense of community in American big campuses: people pour on the streets wearing red, UW’s official color, on football match days to support their beloved student athletes; students and families hang by the lake to enjoy Daily Scoop, UW’s own ice cream brand, while enjoying live music during summer at the Memorial Union Terrace.
In the UK, these organic experiences are not as apparent. The LSE does not really a have a ‘campus’ to begin with, as it is situated in the middle of a very busy city. Student services and campus facilities are limited compared to the UW. Overall, I felt considerably less a part of a campus community and was not as engaged at the LSE, although I loved the fact that the school was very international, as most of the students come from overseas, compared to only about 10% in the UW.
Holistic College Life vs Academic Oriented Experiences
In general, my US experience is a well-rounded one. I would spend weekends at the library pulling an all-nighter but I was also involved in numerous student organizations and worked on campus jobs. I would participate in volunteering activities, even traveled around Midwest with my UW equestrian teammates to join intercollegiate competitions during freshman year.
My UK experience, on the other hand, is very academic – I would only go to campus to attend classes and spend the rest of my time at home, trying to read as much as possible (unless you’re a human robot there is almost no way to finish all the assigned readings) or polishing my essays until late at night. Easter break is almost like a trap; spend too much time having fun and traveling, and you’d have a panic attack realizing exams are right around the corner. By the end of my program I felt like I had learned so much that I could almost hear pieces of knowledge dripping out of my overloaded brain (not really, but you get the gist).
Despite the fact that I enjoyed my US experience more, both my US and UK journeys offered unique experience and skill sets that ultimately shaped my personal and professional life. I gained leadership, confidence, and network from my exposure to the vibrant UW campus culture, and I gained subject expertise and access to the latest thinking and leaders in the field from the LSE (where else can you chat with Julia Gillard and Joyce Banda with only 20 other people in the room?). Both systems equipped me with some of the most important qualities that I now exploit in professional settings: analytical skills, critical thinking and writing, and interpersonal skills in an international environment. Sure, not everything that I learned over the years applies to my current job (I don’t use Stata nor debate the policy impact of cash transfer at work), but this is for separate discussion. The US-UK differences complement nicely to form the person and the ‘profile’ that I am today.
Some people say that if you want to start your own business or someday become a CEO, the US is the place to go. If you want to be a hard-core researcher or a leading scholar, you’d better go the UK. Selling versus mastering, pragmatic versus idealistic, business versus knowledge. While this is a reasonable assessment, I think this is an oversimplification. Granted, the US puts more emphasize to holistic education, whereby students are encouraged to thrive inside and outside classroom, while the UK is more focused on the inside. But at the end of the day it all comes down to what you make out of your experience. There might be as many esteemed American professors as there are British business leaders in the world today. So, make sure you seize your time to the fullest keeping in mind what your goals are, should the next opportunity come knocking at your door.
Photo provided by author.