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The US vs The UK System Of Higher Education

  1. Jul 29, 2014 #1
    Hello,

    firstly i'd like to point out that I realise these systems aren't exclusive to the U.S and the U.K, but i'm using them as examples because a lot of what I read on here is regarding the U.S system and my own experience relates to the U.K system.

    Essentially, I would like to generate a discussion on the pros and cons of the U.S system of majors and minors, and the U.K system of 'this is your subject, this is what you'll study'.

    If I understand it correctly, in the U.S you don't have to actually declare the subject you wish to 'major in' (which I hope is synonymous with 'get your degree in') until the end of your second year at university. I think it must be a little more complicated than this, because someone who wishes to study English literature might very well get into Harvard, but I assume they won't allow that person to declare themselves a physics major once they're in...

    This system does seem to provide students with the opportunity to try out various courses and get a good feel for what it is they wish to devote their time to. I've seen people posting on here saying that they're taking all manner of different combinations of courses and this seems attractive to me.

    When I left school, I started an architecture degree having never studied it before. In the U.K system, from day 1 you are an architecture 'major' (we don't use that term). So every single one of my courses was geared towards the subject. As it turns out, I really did not enjoy this course and had to go through a difficult period of uncertainty.

    I eventually got myself sorted out and was accepted onto a physics degree. I'm much happier now. I do think that if we had the U.S system, I could have turned up to university with the intention of studying architecture, realised it wasn't for me, re-shuffled some courses and tried to gear myself towards physics.

    An obvious downside to this system though, is that it doesn't seem possible for a student in the U.S to cover the same amount of subject specific material in the same amount of time a student in the U.K can. My courses throughout my degree have and will be maths and physics based.

    I hope this generates some discussion,

    i'd love to get some more understanding of the situation because there are opportunities for me to study in the U.S down the line.

    regards,

    BOAS.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 29, 2014 #2

    lisab

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    Good idea for a thread here - we do get questions about all kinds of education systems, and there is a lot of misunderstanding out there!

    Part of the problem with the US system is that there is no one system. Each college/university (the terms are usually interchangeable in the US) has its own rules. There are some similarities, though.

    Generally, it is possible to change from an English major to a Physics major. But you may need to meet certain requirements before doing so (e.g., pass first-year physics classes).
     
  4. Jul 29, 2014 #3

    WannabeNewton

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    This isn't true. It depends entirely on the university and how extensive their general education criteria are. I'll have finished up to and including QFT 2 before the end of my 3rd year and I only have language requirements left. The Arts and Sciences school in my university has a terrible policy of not allowing AP credit from high school to replace these pointless, time-wasting language and general education classes which is not true of all US universities. Many others will let you basically use AP credits to replace such classes and you can skip all the general education requirements and focus solely on the classes pertaining to your major, spending more time on research, or self-studying. Beyond these pointless general education requirements, you basically have all the freedom you want to go hard on physics and math classes if that is to your liking.

    In other words the real downfall of the US system compared to the UK system is the almost ubiquitous presence of general education requirements. They are useless time-sinks that put unnecessary pressure on you and leave you with a bad taste in your mouth-seriously the time would be much better spent on taking more classes pertaining to your major. Why make a student waste time on classes like western mythology and Victorian literature? I mean if you like it then all the power to you, go take it. But to someone like me who cares less than little about such things, the US system is truly, truly frustrating.
     
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2014
  5. Jul 29, 2014 #4
    Interesting.

    I don't know how many subjects someone from high school studies before applying to university, but if it's anything like the U.K's 'A-levels', then most people have narrowed their options down at least a little before starting university.

    When applying for a university, is it the university in general that sets a criteria or do departments have their own? For example, does a prospective student need to make their intentions known and have their application approved by their potential departments admissions tutor?

    My application to university was heavily geared towards my subject area because I knew it would be someone from the department reading it.
     
  6. Jul 29, 2014 #5
    Ok, thanks for clearing that up for me.

    Am I correct in thinking that an 'AP class' is like a 'further course in x, at a level akin to university'?

    These general education requirements do baffle me when I read other's posts on this site and I sympathise with your frustration. It seems to me that they either A, get in the way of studying what you really find interesting, or B provide an 'easy' course to fill a number of credits.

    My second option is quite possibly an oversimplified view of things, but when the choice is QFT 2 or film studies, western mythology etc, one seems significantly easier than the other.

    I appreciate that at some point, everyone needs to fulfill certain requirements to graduate with an actual degree in subject x, but it seems like people could do so much faster and more cheaply, without taking subjects they consider a waste of time.
     
  7. Jul 29, 2014 #6

    George Jones

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    I have taught two students who double-majored in English and Physics, each at a different university in Canada.
     
  8. Jul 29, 2014 #7

    WannabeNewton

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    Yes indeed.

    Yes and they can be a lot if work. Language classes meet Mon. to Fri. and you get homework every single day. It's ridiculous. And I have zero interest in learning a new language so that makes the ordeal so much worse. Sometimes I contemplate switching to engineering physics just to avoid the language requirement. God I hate the Arts and Sciences school at my university.
     
  9. Jul 29, 2014 #8
    Do they give a rationale for why the requirements differ?
     
  10. Jul 29, 2014 #9

    WannabeNewton

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    "The faculty considers competence in a foreign language essential for an educated person. Studying a language other than one’s own helps students understand the dynamics of language, our fundamental intellectual tool, and enables students to understand another culture. The sooner a student acquires competence, the sooner it will be useful. Hence, work toward the foreign language requirement should be undertaken in the first two years. Students postponing the language requirement for junior and senior years risk not graduating in time. Courses in foreign languages and/or literature are taught in the College of Arts and Sciences by the following departments: Africana Studies and Research Center, Asian Studies, China and Asia-Pacific Studies, Classics, Comparative Literature, German Studies, Linguistics, Near Eastern Studies, and Romance Studies."

    It's just nonsense really. I really couldn't care less about understanding the dynamics of language or understanding other cultures.
     
  11. Jul 29, 2014 #10

    WWGD

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    Learning all that will help you become better-rounded and will help you become better-prepared and better informed to participate in the discussions/debates about societal, world issues that affect us all. Now, if those classes are poorly-taught or designed, it is a different issue. I assume the school believes it is (part of) its mission to do that, to train you as a citizen, not just as a physicist; it is not a technical school after all.
     
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2014
  12. Jul 29, 2014 #11

    WannabeNewton

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    Like I said, I really couldn't care less about that. I'm looking for my (or rather my parents') money's worth and paying several grand a year to become "better-rounded" so as to engage in off-tournament friendly debate with others is definitely not worth that kind of money. If I was in tournament debate then I could understand but I don't need to take liberal arts classes in order to engage in pedestrian debates. I'm not looking to become Christopher Hitchens here. I entered college to learn physics and go to physics grad school. Foreign cultures simply do not interest me and I find it a huge waste of time having to learn about them. I assure you my elementary knowledge of linguistics or western mythology will never be useful, ever. The only useful general education classes I can think of are rhetoric classes as they help develop one's expository writing abilities.
     
  13. Jul 29, 2014 #12

    WWGD

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    it is not to engage in off-tournament- friendly debate; it is to be informed as a citizen on problems that affect us all, even at a world level. You see to want the benefits without the burden . Still, if you (your parents) can afford to send you there , they are most likely able to afford a school where there are no such reqs. Why didn't you choose a different school? I , for one, prefer to have scientists that are aware and prepared to understand the humanities perspective/ implication of their work ,and not just the technical aspects.
     
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2014
  14. Jul 29, 2014 #13

    WannabeNewton

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    This is all nice on the back of a cereal box but I don't want to be put under pressure due to grades and essays and exams when I have tons of physics related things like classes, self-studying, and research to worry about. Exams and essays in particular induce a lot of stress. My rhetoric class on the ubiquity of US violations of international laws of war involved so many essays that it basically ate out all the extra time I had to further my studies in general relativity.

    There are simply more important things going in my academics than "being informed as a citizen on problems that affect us all". My local life is more important to me than global politics and wasting time on the latter is not a luxury when one is studying physics in university. I have the Daily Show for that and that's enough for me. I don't like being forced to learn about things that I have no interest in.

    All the Ivy leagues have strict general education requirements in Arts and Sciences schools so the others won't be any different from the one I attend now. Berkeley is not as strict but it's an out of state school so it will be extremely expensive, like 50 grand a year since OOS schools don't offer much financial aid; the same goes for other OOS schools which are well known for physics like UIUC and UMich Ann Arbor. Schools like MIT and CalTech tend to be more lenient as well with general education requirements but I applied to MIT in high school and didn't get in so I can't do anything about that. UChicago is even worse when it comes to general education requirements than my school.
     
  15. Jul 29, 2014 #14

    jtbell

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    In the US, at the undergraduate level, you usually (there are always exceptions!) apply to the school as a whole. Departments are not involved in the admissions process. At the small undergraduate-only school where I work, the application form includes a space for specifying the intended or possible major(s), but this is used only for assigning the student's first faculty advisor. If a student changes his interests, he changes to a different advisor when he officially declares his major, no later than the end of the second year.

    Large universities usually have an intermediate administrative level, the "college" or "school", between the university-as-a-whole and the individual departments, e.g. "college of arts and sciences", "college of engineering", etc. I think usually each "college" does their own admissions, and students have to apply to the "college" that contains the department(s) that they are interested in.

    Different "colleges" in the same university also tend to have different gen-ed requirements.
     
  16. Jul 29, 2014 #15

    WWGD

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    Well man, it sucks, but it is about more than your or my needs; it is about our obligations too, as members of society. And overly-specialized scientists without a humanities perspective are potentially harmful. Besides, aren't you around 20 y/o, with rich parents and you already get a head start with physics clubs in high school and have been exposed to material most older people have not been? I don't mean to take away from your talent and hard work, but isn't this enough of a break most of us did not/do not have for you to be willing to give something back ?
     
  17. Jul 29, 2014 #16
    Try not to let the language requirements divert you from your goals. Just get on with the classes and get them out of the way.
     
  18. Jul 29, 2014 #17

    jtbell

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    Yes, it's not at all unusual for students to change their major mid-stream, or at least early-stream. If they do it early enough, they can often still squeeze in all the required courses for their new major without having to stay in school longer. The four-year time frame for a bachelor's degree here usually leaves enough room for several "elective" courses if a student sticks with the same major, over and above the major and gen-ed requirements. That extra room also makes it easier to switch majors if you do it early enough.

    If you have to switch from one "college" to another in the same university, things would probably be a bit messier, but still do-able.
     
  19. Jul 29, 2014 #18

    WannabeNewton

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    I suppose? I don't really know what I can give back haha.

    Yes you are definitely right. It's not like I can do anything about it.

    But to come back to the OP's original thread intent, this is indeed my biggest annoyance with the US higher education system when compared to that of UK and Europe more generally. But just to level the playing field a bit, one could argue that the UK system of "this is what you must choose to study when entering university and this is what you must learn as a result" might not be to everyone's advantage. A friend of mine is choosing universities in the UK to attend and he is having a rather hard time choosing a discipline to study e.g. EE vs. comp sci because he doesn't have the freedom to change later down the line in university. So it does put a lot of pressure on him to make the right decision especially given that kids his age don't necessarily know what they want to do as a career. They need to test the waters a bit.
     
  20. Jul 29, 2014 #19

    George Jones

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    Art Hobson believes that science general education requirements for non-science majors have benefited society. In a letter published in the July 2008 issue of The American Journal of Physics, he writes:

    "Fortunately, the U.S. system of higher education allows us a perfect opportunity to do this. Our system requires most college students to take a variety of general education courses in history, language, literature, the arts, and the sciences. All European nations, and most other nations, have no such general education requirements for college students. U.S. adults have scored far higher than European adults during two decades of tests of general scientific literacy by Jon D. Miller,2 Director of the International Center for Scientific Literacy at Michigan State University. Miller has shown that the U.S. required college science courses for nonscientists are almost certainly the reason for this unexpected result, and that these courses are surprisingly effective at instilling lifelong scientific literacy.3 As Miller puts it, 'What we are seeing here is a result of the fact that Americans are required to take science courses at the university, while Europeans and Asians are not.'"

    2 For an overview of Miller’s program of scientific literacy measurements and analysis, see J. Trefil, Why Science? Teacher’s College Press, New York, 2008, Chap. 6.

    3 A. Hobson, “The surprising effectiveness of college scientific literacy courses,” submitted for publication to The Physics Teacher, preprint available at physics.uark.edu/hobson/ pubs/08.01.TPT.html."
     
  21. Jul 29, 2014 #20
    I think about education system like one machine whose input is a student, for example, when output will have himself coated with some knowledge, the more machines he goes through the thicker his coat will become.
    The problem with me personally is that after I passed through the machines, I became totally naked.
    Luckily I psyche me up quite nicely and am trying to learn more. I have been meeting and working with several people graduated from some schools in the US and my conclusion is the US spreads good ads about their higher education system but their outcomes are not really good.
    I also meet some guys who can't even speak fluently or listen well some simple statements or words commonly used in their own areas of expertise, although they have been living in the US for a dozen of years or more.
    So their system comes alive (1) based on money; if you pay the money, study!
    (2) based bad attitudes (e.g attitudes like whatever as long as I get my own work done)

    I also see an odd thing that many American when they get out of their country and land on a Asian one laugh at how silly or stupid and pure Asian people "care" too much about each other. I realize people there in the US care only their own business and their own relatives. Even in a movie when Jenny cries to Johny "You come back for me, huhu ?", I can see how cold the American people actually are.
     
  22. Jul 29, 2014 #21
    You're over-emphasizing the importance of the classes. Do you truly think that I'm an incompetent citizen with an unfulfilled obligation towards my country--neigh, humanity--unless I take Spanish 211 and learn briefly about Dia de los Muertos?

    The U.S. is nearly unique in its position of general education requirements. In a sense, you're purporting that countries like England, that offer solely specialized courses in university, are ill-prepared global citizens who simply cannot understand the plights of other countries.

    Now, I think certain requirements ought to be requirements. It is vital that scientists know how to communicate, therefore, like WBN referenced, classes like Rhetoric are very useful. However, learning of Ancient Rome, while interesting to me, is not vital to the growth of a citizen, nor vital in any sense to a physics major. I'm of the opinion that language classes in college are largely superficial, seeing as it's nonsensical for one to begin heavily learning a language at the age of 18. The reason other countries are so much more affluent and bilingual is that their schooling for other languages is considered essential from an early age, whereas in the U.S. we only get an inkling of it as early as middle school (pre-teen to early teenage years).
     
  23. Jul 29, 2014 #22
    I live in Iowa. While not university, my HS offered an environmental science course. My Spanish IV class had a few of those "my pappy's a neo-con who says Obama will be the death of the free-world, and so am I," who conceded that taking the environmental science course entirely changed their view on global warming, which they previously thought was a farce.

    People are reasonable, at the core. Put them in a setting devoted to reason, give them reasonable reasons with sensible reasoning about certain subjects, and we have no reason to fear a science-illiterate populous :smile:
     
  24. Jul 29, 2014 #23

    WWGD

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    Many of these college classes expose you to issues , perspectives you are not likely to be exposed to otherwise. Of course , you can do this on your own too, but I think it is a good idea to try to make sure that those who will likely have an impact on society are thoughtful, well-informed, and have a broad-based perspective. And I think requiring scientists to be exposed to a humanities perspective helps in this respect. Besides, you can meet more women that way :) , since there are still relatively few women in science--outside of psychology.
     
  25. Jul 29, 2014 #24
    Fair enough. I have a penchant for artsy women anyway :smile:
     
  26. Jul 29, 2014 #25
    As has been said, it differs from school to school.

    I should point out here that while we colloquially use "college" and "university" interchangeably here in the U.S. the schools often don't. My school was technically a university, and when I applied to the university I had to make it clear that I was applying to the "School of Engineering". I didn't have to declare a major until after my third semester, but I had to declare that I was entering the university in the School of Engineering. In order to transfer, I had to apply to the School of Physics (or physical sciences, or whatever it was called) or the School of Management. Though the process of intra-university application was not as involved as the original application process, it was still required that my credentials be reviewed for acceptance into the other "school" within my University.

    I know that happens in many other universities and "institutes" as well around the U.S. and not just in engineering. I have friends that went to schools for interior design. They had to apply to the school of interior design and if they were rejected, they had to apply again in the next term to another school within their university (if they still wanted to get in). For one friend, she wished to switch from the University's Fashion Merchandising major to Interior Design. They required that she apply as if she were a non-student, though they allowed her to use her fashion coursework as portfolio work.

    So, depending on what school's you are trying for, you may have to make your intentions clear in order to get into the program you want. Some, however, allow you to enter the school in general education/liberal arts and transfer to other programs if you meet the requirements for transfer. Some schools have very little in the way of cross-major barriers; excepting of course the fact that you still need to take the requisite classes. Basically, in some schools you can switch majors, but you may need to spend another year or more in order to take the courses required.

    As to your other question, about high school students knowing what they want to study, that also depends. The push to go to university is pretty ubiquitous in the U.S., so many people go just because you're expected to. I, and many of my friends, knew what I wanted to study when I left high school. Many others, not so much. They go, they take gen. ed. classes and the required math classes, and then hopefully they figure something out in time to finish their program on time. Many students switch majors 2-3+ times and wind up staying enrolled for extra semesters/years just for a bachelor's degree.

    The system is intended to allow students freedom to study what they are actually interested in. As a large percentage of 18 year olds don't necessarily know what they want to do with their lives (especially in American culture), forcing them to choose a rigid set of coursework could be a recipe for disaster (or at least a workforce of begrudging employees).

    Maybe WWGD was over-emphasizing it, but I too think it's important. So do most universities. Universities are not associates degree tech schools. They are, or see themselves as, institutions which produce clever, well-rounded professionals. Some schools are turning more toward the technical degree and putting less emphasis on liberal arts (my school, for example, had no language requirement, and any liberal arts/history classes one took were strictly as free electives). But schools are wary of making this full transition because it's a matter of giving students a complete education, in the traditional sense of the word.

    These classes are intended to provide a foundation for the prospective professionals to have interests and general knowledge outside of their chosen field. In the best case, a student learns about the world, or about literature, or something like that, and realizes that they enjoy it; they then may pursue it as a hobby or in passing and become a more well rounded person. If nothing else, it teaches you how to do well even in subjects that are of virtually no interest to you, which is a valuable skill as well.
     
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