Differences and similarities in the US/AU undergraduate experience?
January 2, 2011 2:30 AM   Subscribe

For those with experience of undergraduate study at both American and Australian universities, what were some of the most notable contrasts? I'm particularly interested in differences in student culture and in assessment methods / difficulty.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot to Education (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I can only speak as the child of an academic that studied and worked in both systems... and of a friend's experience at the University of Queensland and an unknown university in Arizona- (he lived in a suburb or town called Tempe, if that helps narrow down the uni).

I know I risk being soundly drubbed.... but my father and my friend both agreed that American undergraduate degrees were not as difficult as Australian undergraduate degrees and their masters level programs were more like Australian undergrad degrees.

But I think Americans pioneered... well, at least did it long before Australia, the idea of making some degrees compulsorily post-grad.... like medicine.

My friend also struggled doing a masters of architecture at the Arizona university as a mature age student.... although he'd done 6 years of study in Australia and worked for 20 years here, the Americans insisted he do their master's degree and all the students called their lecturers Dr and Professor and Sir/Female Equivalent (? Ma'am) and the relationships were very unequal. He said it reminded him of high school.... the deference....

Although he said everyone was really nice. But my own experience is that Americans usually are, anyway.

I've never studied at an American uni (just went to school there), but Australian universities are awfully informal. Lecturers/professors are never called by their titles. I think they do it in medicine.... but none of the other faculties, as far as I know. That said, they still rigorously insist on proper citation etc here, of course.

None of this is empirical so I hope more folk come and give their experiences... that's just my .05aud cents worth.
posted by taff at 3:19 AM on January 2, 2011

Oh, I forgot to mention... when I was at uni (under grad), one of our lecturers was an American and prescribed an American textbook. It was definitely high school level and we only used the second half of the book.

Now that I think about it, it may not have been an American thing, and more about the authors... but my peers at the time were quite confused that such a textbook could be a university level text. I didn't notice till it was pointed out to me. I admit that I didn't read anything in that textbook that wasn't prescribed.... until the discussion came up in our lecture about what an infantile book it was.
posted by taff at 3:24 AM on January 2, 2011

By contrast, my BFF studied at Mount Holyoke and the University of Melbourne, and found her coursework at Melbourne refreshingly easy and undemanding. So...YMMV, depending on which institutes you attend.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 4:00 AM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you're thinking of coming to Australia to study, know that it is very expensive as an international student. Not only is the tuition quite high, the cost of living in major Australian cities is through the roof, and most of the unis are in major cities (not like the USA where you get unis plonked in the middle of corn fields). If you are international and thinking of staying in Australia, seriously investigate the visa situation and also be aware that the government can change how your visa works at any time especially near an election!

The University of Melbourne has 'Americanized' their degrees, as in what taff says: undergrad becomes just a generalist degree and you need to do postgrad to actually be qualified to do anything. So don't go there unless you're loaded and can do an extra 'masters' degree, which is basically a watered down version of one of the old undergrad degrees! It sucks extra if you're local because there is no government subsidy for postgrad degrees, only undergrad.

Student culture in Australia is all about drinking, but I don't know if that differs substantially from the USA. One thing you'll probably find that differs from the USA though is that the universities are mainly commuter campuses, ie only a small fraction live on campus.
posted by Joe Chip at 5:29 AM on January 2, 2011

Oh yeah and due to the heavy reliance on international students for funding (gouging) of Australian universities (the Australian culture at large and hence government don't give a toss about education, and are in fact quite anti-intellectual most of the time), courses are heavily watered down. The international students are paying big bucks to be here, you can't possibly fail them! Give them infinite 'special consideration' concessions until they pass.
posted by Joe Chip at 5:37 AM on January 2, 2011

Not bitter at all about my experience!
posted by Joe Chip at 5:40 AM on January 2, 2011

Ironically, my experience as an international student at University of Melbourne was that they damn well would fail me if I slacked off, no excuses. I had friends who flunked multiple subjects and got hauled up in front of progress committees that threatened to send them home if they didn't shape up (they did).

If you want to do comparisons regarding academic rigour, you're probably better off comparing specific courses at specific universities rather than America-vs-Australia. Academic standards at a big university will vary from faculty to faculty to begin with, sometimes even from course to course within a faculty.
posted by Xany at 6:25 AM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know nothing about Australian universities, so I'll leave that to others. But the idea of generalizing about "American universities" is a bit preposterous. It really depends on which American university you're talking about. You shouldn't trust anyone who is willing to make general claims about the difficultness of American universities. That person doesn't know what he or she is talking about.
posted by craichead at 6:34 AM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Obviously universities differ, and much more so in America than Australia. I'm just interested in people's personal data points.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 6:51 AM on January 2, 2011

Obviously universities differ, and much more so in America than Australia. I'm just interested in people's personal data points.

"Personal data points" are also known as "anecdoes," which are not data. Individual experiences will tell you nothing; my personal experience at just one American university, on assessment difficulty, ranged from "multiple choice test, so easy I could have gotten a B before even taking the class," to hyper-difficult essay-based projects.

This is exactly the kind of topic where individual anecdotes are useless and you won't be able to really learn anything useful without numbers that cover a large number of people, and start deriving statistics from them about those things (assessment methods/difficulty) that you're interested in. Anecdotes might tell you something helpful about student culture, but when it comes to academics, there's just too much variability and your question just turns into chatfilter.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:43 AM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

One thing you'll probably find that differs from the USA though is that the universities are mainly commuter campuses, ie only a small fraction live on campus.

To spell this out a little more: given where most Australians live (in and around the big cities) and where most Australian universities are located (ditto), there's a much greater proportion of students who live with their parents -- around half of the total student population.

For obvious reasons, this affects student culture: for local students, uni is often a continuation of school and family life, while those who come from elsewhere have a very different experience from both their commuter peers and those at institutions where everybody lives away from home. (I stumbled upon Gillian Best's comparative study on this topic, and it's worth a look.)
posted by holgate at 8:18 AM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm really enjoying that thesis, holgate. Thanks!
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 8:28 AM on January 2, 2011

There are international rankings available -- the Times of London does one -- that ranks universities worldwide.

Top-tier US universities are (among) the best in the world -- and difficult, and competitive. But we have SO MANY universities; are you talking about middle-tier universities? Flagship state Us? Private, selective liberal arts colleges? Directional State University? Big differences.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:41 AM on January 2, 2011

Student culture in Australia is all about drinking

This is nonsense. Student culture in Australia - as anywhere - is wide-ranging and varied. A teetotaler would have no trouble socialising at uni in Australia, or rather, their sobriety wouldn't hold them back.
posted by smoke at 3:15 PM on January 2, 2011

Best answer: That's a fascinating thesis, holgate. Cool.

I've never studied in the USA, but when I did casual tutoring in the early 2000s in modern history at a sandstone Australian university,* I taught quite a few American exchange students.**

I found the Americans to be far in advance of their Australian classmates, and European exchange students, in terms of expressing themselves verbally and in having group discussions, but they were generally not as experienced writers or researchers. The Australian HSC, VCE and other State high-school tertiary entrance certificates stress those two skills really strongly, a preparation for university research the Americans I taught didn't seem to have. Our first- and second-year students were expected to be able to produce essays of short to short/medium length (1000 to 4000 words) with primary source research, at which many of the Americans didn't seem to have experience.

There seemed to be a very different marking system, at least in humanities. The system we marked to (high distinction over 85%, distinction over 75%, credit over 65%, high pass over 60%) made for a lot of very very disappointed Americans who by Australian standards had done rather well. Many of them seemed to be used to be used to getting As or Bs across all of the courses they were enrolled in "back home", or claimed to; this simply isn't usual in an Australian humanities marking system. A "credit average" is a notably good performance in first and second year. It's not a different standard of marking, just a different scale.

I don't know how it is now or with international masters students, as Joe Chip said, but in my experience, if a student's essay wasn't up to pass standard, they first got the chance to resubmit it within a few days, and if they couldn't, they were failed without regret or excuses. It's not fun but it happens.

I was frequently called "professor" and "sir". I'm not a professor, I didn't and still don't have a doctorate, and in Australia only school teachers and referees are "sir", "miss" and so on. Settle down, yankees, call me Fiasco or Mr da Gama if you really must.
Student culture in Australia is all about drinking
Agreed, in the general sense this is nonsense, although there is a long-existing problem with alcohol abuse (and chauvinist cultures of bullying) in residential colleges.
the government can change how your visa works at any time
This is regrettable fact. And the warning should be in letters a metre high at the airport: do not ever, ever, trifle with the Australian immigration authorities.

*"Sandstone" refers to the larger, older, top-tier Australian universities.
**On the sample bias: they were almost exclusively white kids, all under the age of 21 (they talked a lot, favourably, about Australia's "progressive" alcohol licencing laws), and as far as I could tell they were all fairly financially well-off, though they did seem to be from all around America. I didn't and don't know enough about the tiers of American universities to say anything about which schools they came from. I liked them and found them easy and pleasant to teach.

posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:29 PM on January 3, 2011

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