Twice as much education for double the price?

One of the most striking differences in the American and British university systems is the amount of class time required for a bachelor degree. The US semester is 50% longer and the undergraduate degree program is one year longer (3 years in Britain, 4 years in the US). For those who have problems with math, this means American undergraduates are in class exactly twice as long as the British counter parts. Of course, The British students only take classes in their major, whereas the American system includes breadth with liberal arts requirements. The two questions that I have to ask are 1) Do American students get twice the education as the British and 2) do the British spend half as much money per student as the Americans for a Bachelor’s degree?  I realize that I am biased, but my guess would be yes to the first and no to the second. In the case of double the time, American students get a much broader experience, more opportunity to change direction as the students mature. We American instructors get the added freedom and luxury of time with the longer semesters allowing more time for teaching innovation and time for flexibility in dealing with difficult topics. The flip side of this can be a lack of focused effort from the students. This extra time and extra choice leads some to flounder whereas the focused more intense rationed system of the British system encourages never straying from the path.  I have no idea about the second question about relative cost between the two countries.  If anyone can point me to any hard numbers on these issues please do.


  1. I'd be interested to see how that translates into actual contact hours etc. too. Oxford, for example, had shorter terms than Nottingham when I was a student but they had lectures and tutorials on Saturday mornings and seemed to be expected to cram in the same amount of work - in other words, it was the free time that was reduced, not the amount of education. I have no idea about the US system but it's definitely not as simple as looking at Semester/course length. (It could be even more than double time.)

    I would also say that Southampton Biology students have far fewer lectures than many of their contemporaries unless things have changed. We had 50% more lectures (although fewer practicals I suspect) at Nottingham, for example, so your perception of the UK system might be a bit skewed.

    That said, I definitely think that British students are forced to specialise way too early. We are still using an educational model from a bygone age. This can work out well if, like me, you stay in (roughly) the area you specialised in as you get deeper into the subject quicker. In reality, however, most 21st Century students are no longer working towards specific careers/fields and, in balance, I think it is better to have a broader education. Not sure how you even begin to quantify such things, though.


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