Professor & Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology at Royal Roads University

US vs UK: academic differences


Posted on October 26th, by George Veletsianos in work. 2 comments

If you follow this blog, or know me personally, you know that two months ago to this day I moved from the US to the UK. I knew that there were differences between the two educational systems, but I didn’t know too many details. Below is a list of differences. I am sure there are more but as I start internalizing the differences, I am assuming that it will become harder and harder to verbalize them. I don’t know if these apply to all fields, but this is how it goes in the education departments that i’ve experienced:

  • At the end of your master’s degree, if you are in the US you write a thesis and if you are in the UK you write a dissertation. If you are doing a phd, it’s called a disseration in the US and a thesis in the UK.
  • Master’s levels papers are judged by a committee in the US and you receive a pass/fail (usually a pass).  In the UK, your paper is graded by your advisor (called a tutor in the UK). Graded means being given an actual mark (0-100). A second person independently grades your paper too. Then, the two come together to discuss the individuals grades. If they disagree the paper goes to an external evaluator who grades it. The external evaluator also looks at all papers that are receive a “fail” mark and also looks at a representative sample from all dissertations/thesis.
  • In the UK, blind marking is the norm. I have never blind marked a paper in the US (and I don’t see how bling marking will work since I already know what my student’s final project will be about)
  • My students are supposed to turn in their papers to an administrator by the due date. I then receive those papers. I always received the papers in the US.
  • My students can ask for a deadline extension from the University (which is usually granted, i believe). In the US I had complete control over deadline extensions and I could negotiate it on an individual or collective basis.
  • UK grants are budgeted at “100% Full Economic Cost.” FEC means that all costs should be accounted for in a grant. “All costs” means all costs related to a project (yes, this includes items such as my time working on the project, but also things like electricity use, computer depreciation, and so on). US grants are not budgeted like this.
  • Committee work is minimal in the UK (for a lecturer at least). My US colleagues have to do quite a bit of committee work.
  • US institutions make an offer to the academics they intend to hire. The academics then make a counter-offer and negotiate their salary and benefits. In the UK, (to a large extent) there is no negotiation. I learned this one pretty quickly :).
  • The UK has a national academic pay scale. The US does not.
  • US academics get a pay rise when they move to a new university. In the UK, your salary goes up every year until you reach the top scale of your position. Moving to a new institution does not necessarily mean a raise (see point above).
  • In the US the academics are called assistant professors, associate professors, (full) professors. In the UK we are called lecturers, senior lecturers, readers, and professors.
  • In the US, you are on a tenure-track position. In the UK you are on a permanent position (usually with a probationary period of 4 years).
  • If you do not have a UK teaching certificate and this is the first time you are teaching in the UK, you have to go through a New Academics Programme where you will be taught some fundamentals of the system, university, and teaching. If you change institutions, you do not have to go through the programme again. There is no such formal process in the US.
  • In the US, I could use my grades as an incentive to encourage people to do better/more work. Specifically, i could give bonus marks for going over and beyond some task, or if students chose to engage with a particularly difficult (optional) task I had assigned. Apparently, the practice of “bonus points” is “unorthodox” in the UK and discouraged (banned, may be a more appropriate word) [added on Nov 18].

That’s all I can remember right now. Below is a list of relatively funny differences:

  • “Pissed” means drunk (UK) or mad (US).
  • Color is colour.
  • WebCT Vista (UK) is Blackboard (UK). This is more weird than funny. For those of you who don’t know the background. Blackboard and WebCT were two learning management systems companies. Blackboard bought webct. WebCT Vista is the Learning Management’s System name (US). In the UK it’s simply called Blackboard because, I was told, people kept confusing Vista with the Vista operating system. Understandable. But, this begs the question: Don’t US academics have the same problem? Why is it still Vista over there?
  • Cell phones = mobile phones.

And the obvious similarities (and pieces of advice):

  • Be friends with the tech people – they are invaluable. Enough said. Actually be friends with everyone :)
  • Powerpoint is still evil :))




2 thoughts on “US vs UK: academic differences

  1. Hi!
    Really interesting to read about these differences – I’d love to have someone go through a bunch of different national systems like this, I think it could be very useful.
    Most of all I’d like some of the hardnecked university administrators or well ‘hardcore university people’ have a look at such an overview, to see that there are very many of the “absolute, indisputable” procedures and ways of going about apparantly vary between nations.
    Then one might of course sit back and dream up one’s own ideal university :-)

  2. Yes – i think that cultural/national differences are really fascinating… and have always thought about doing international comparative studies :) Are there any unique features of the swedish system that are really different from the ones described above?

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