The Differences Between American and British Universities
By Namita Mehta
The recent election results, political uncertainty and possible changes to immigration policies in the US and UK have caused a lot of concern globally, especially for foreign students aspiring to study abroad in those countries. Universities in both countries, however, are still actively recruiting and continue to welcome international students. And students still need to make choices that are relevant to their academic goals and right for their personalities. Both the US and UK offer high standards of education, renowned institutions and diverse student bodies, which add up to experiences typically seen as only an asset to students preparing to join the global workforce. That said, the higher education systems in both countries are unique, and these main areas of difference between American and British universities may help students and their parents decide which — if either — is the right fit.
The difference between American and British universities
How cost and financial aid differ at US universities vs UK universities
For many families, the cost of higher education overseas is a primary constraint. Tuition, living and other expenses during the course of an undergraduate degree roughly total Rs 25 lakh to 40 lakh per year in the UK (a conservative estimate), and Rs 30 lakh to 60 lakh per year in the US.
Unfortunately, there is very limited financial aid for international students in the UK. This is because most universities there, with a few exceptions like Regent’s School of Business, are public and all bursaries and loans are primarily meant to assist British national undergraduate students.
The US has both private and public universities, with the public universities following a financial aid model similar to the UK universities in that it favors domestic students. Quite a few private colleges in the US, however, have large funds that offer aid to international students or offer merit-based aid to students with competitive academic performance in high school. This financial assistance varies widely, ranging from partial to full coverage of tuition. Only five US universities (Harvard University, Princeton University, Yale University, Amherst College and Massachusetts Institute of Technology), are considered ‘need blind,’ meaning they will admit students based only on merit and help them overcome any financial obstacles to attendance.
How academic options differ at US universities vs UK universities
Another difference between American and British universities is the breadth of study in students’ coursework. UK schools favour depth over breadth; students don’t take courses unrelated to their majors, and their only compulsory courses fall within their field of study. Also, students must decide what they want to study from the very beginning and cannot change majors midway through college. (You can read more about academic life at Oxbridge universities, which, in this regard, is representative of most UK universities.)
Conversely, US universities offer more flexibility and breadth. Students typically don’t have to declare their major until the end of their second (sophomore) year, which allows for more exploration. And after that point, students may still change their major. In fact, it is common to do so; it is estimated that 80% of college students in the US change their major at least once.
Students also must take compulsory courses in core subjects like writing, mathematics, science, and political science outside of their major’s coursework.
This is what it means, when it comes to deciding between a US vs. UK education: If your child is definitively set on a specific field of study – say, microbiology – a UK university environment might be best; if she has a passion for many subjects, doesn’t have a clear professional goal yet, or is interested in a broad field, like communications, a US university might be a better fit of the two.
Finally, for students interested in professions like medicine, dentistry or law, UK is the only country, of the two, to offer undergraduate programs; in the US, these programs are only available to students at a postgraduate level.
How the degree durations differ at US universities vs UK universities
An undergraduate degree in the UK takes three years, unless the student works for a year in the middle of their degree and thus takes four years. (More on that below.) In the US, your child will normally receive an undergraduate degree in four years, unless they choose to fast-track their degree by taking courses during summer break.
How admission processes differ at US universities vs UK universities
Admission for undergraduate programs is another huge area of difference between American and British universities. In the UK, admission requirements focus on academic performance. Decisions are primarily made based on a student’s class 12 predicted grades meeting the programs’ minimum entry requirements (normally listed on the programs’ websites). Admission is finalized only when students actually achieve required grades. Also, some UK programs may require the completion of specific courses in high school, so admission planning is more of an academic long game for students interested in studying in the UK.
UK universities do not require standardised test scores. However, for competitive courses such as medicine and law, as well as applications to Oxbridge, students must take admissions tests.
US universities, however, may or may not look at SAT/ACT and/or SAT II subject scores, along with many other factors. (Competitive US universities do look at test scores.) In the US, the focus of admission is on a students’ potential fit within the community. University admission committees weigh academic transcripts, letters of recommendation, personal essays and extracurricular involvement alongside test scores. And there is no perfect formula that combines all these elements in a student’s high school experience.
How pedagogy styles differ at US universities vs UK universities
UK universities are largely lecture-based, with occasional assignments through the semester. In some cases, there may be no required assignments and a student’s entire grade may be based on a single, final exam.
In the US, most courses require weekly or biweekly assessments as well as assignments like small writing projects, major research papers, and oral presentations. Scores on these assignments and assessments, along with a final exam score, make up a student’s overall grade.
How work opportunities differ at US universities vs UK universities
In both countries, international students enrolled in courses are governed by rules and regulations about working on or off campus. Students may work up to 20 hours a week during semesters and full time during breaks.
In the UK, international students can take advantage of programs that offer a year of industry experience (making the total time till graduation four instead of three years); for these programs, work experience is included in the student visa.
The US allows international students to benefit from an Optional Practical Training (OPT) period. This allows undergraduate students with an F-1 student visa, who have completed their degree or have been pursuing it for more than nine months, to work for one year on a student visa toward practical training that complements their education. After this period is up, international students must return to their studies, leave the country, or apply for a work visa to continue.
After graduating, students have no assurance of finding a job in either the US or the UK. And while most universities in both countries have dedicated resources to helping them find one, if they want it, given current political climates, job opportunities for international students are uncertain.
Students and their families should take time and consider and discuss all of the above points of difference between American and British universities, in the context of advantages and disadvantages. It’s all about finding the right fit for the applicant.