Twelve things fic featuring British universities sometimes doesn’t quite get right
This short guide focuses mostly on some of the differences between British and American higher education systems. It is aimed at writers of fan (and original) fiction concerned in some way with characters that are students at, or alumni of, British universities.
Inevitably there will be exceptions to the information detailed here.
1. Your character is probably attending ‘university’ (or ‘uni’). Not ‘college’ or ‘school’. School is usually reserved for referring to pre-tertiary education in the UK.
2. Your character wouldn’t apply to institutions directly. Potential students are restricted to five (some exceptions) applications via the application service UCAS, and from the offers they receive they can select one firm and one insurance choice (to be used if they do not achieve the A level (or equivalent) grades at the end of high school to get into their firm choice). Prior to 1961, potential undergraduates did apply directly to individual universities.
3. Your character doesn’t major in anything. The term ‘major’ isn’t used in relation to university courses. In part due to the shorter course length, UK degrees are usually less broad in their focus than degrees in many other countries; most or all modules/papers taken will be directly related to one’s degree subject. Joint and mixed degrees are available. Students can switch subjects, but it can be difficult to do this beyond the first few weeks of their course.
4. Your character isn’t studying pre-med – law and medicine are undergraduate degrees in the UK. Three years for law, five for medicine. Post-degree training is required in addition to a degree to become fully qualified. Four year medicine graduate entry courses for those with a non-medical first degree are available, and one year law conversion courses for those with a non-legal first degree are available.
5. Your character doesn’t live in a dorm. A building of university-owned accommodation is called a ‘hall of residence’, known as ‘halls’. Students usually live in halls in their first year, and elsewhere thereafter. RA is not a term used in the UK.
6. Your character is overwhelmingly unlikely to have a roommate. There are exceptions, but these are fairly rare examples: St. Cuthbert’s Society and some other colleges at the University of Durham have some shared rooms*; Aberystwyth University were forced to put bunk beds in some rooms one year to cope with an increased student intake; etc. Generally speaking, UK students each get their own room.
7. It’s unlikely all your character’s teachers will be professors. At most universities, professorships are reserved for only the most senior academic staff. Other staff are ranked as a reader, senior lecturer or lecturer. There is no such thing as tenure or tenure-track; staff are either employed permanently but subject to usual employment laws and conventions, or on rolling or temporary contracts.
8. Today’s students pay fees, but your British character attending university prior to 1998 would have paid no tuition. As of 2015, up to £9000 a year can be charged, with some regional variations. This is normally paid back via student loan when the graduate starts earning £21,000 a year or more. Students from outside the EU pay more. The introduction and increase of tuition fees has been controversial.
9. Your character might graduate more quickly than you’d expect. A full time BA or BSc takes three years to complete. Language courses last four, to include a year abroad. A taught masters takes a year. A PhD takes three years. Scotland is different - amongst other things, undergraduate degrees in Scotland usually take four years and are broader; some undergraduate Scottish degrees have MA in the title, but this is an undergraduate MA equivalent to an English/Welsh/Northern Irish BA.*
10. Your character did not graduate summa cum laude. Instead of Latin honours, degrees are classed as follows:
- First class honours (1st) [the highest class]
- Second class honours, upper division (2:1)
- Second class honours, lower division (2:2)
- Third class honours (3rd)
- Ordinary degree (pass)
Until the late 1970s, second class honours were not split into two divisions. Many employers only consider firsts and 2:1s (historically, firsts and seconds) as “good” degrees.
There is no such thing as GPA. Whether courses are assessed by coursework, exams or a mixture of both depends on the particular university course.
11. Your character probably won’t be strolling around beautiful pre-20th century buildings exclusively. Even at the oldest universities – almost all of which underwent expansion during the concrete-happy 1960s. Part of Queens’ College, Cambridge looks like this. Another part of Queens’ College, Cambridge looks like this.
12. Does your character attend Oxford or Cambridge? You have some additional things to bear in mind. All of the above information still applies, but Oxbridge is different. The very fact that Oxbridge (a word used to refer to the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge together) is a term that exists indicates that they are often considered both separate from other universities and interchangeable with each other. They are the oldest universities in the UK, and they are the only UK universities with endowments that run into the billions rather than millions of pounds. The key things to be aware of are that Oxford and Cambridge are made up of semi-autonomous constituent colleges (and that it is fairly common to live in your college for all three undergraduate years), that students are regularly taught in groups of 1-3 (called the tutorial system at Oxford, the supervision system at Cambridge) and that there’s quite a lot of jargon to colour your writing with should you wish to.
This more specific information is pertinent as a disproportionately high number of fictional characters and famous people attended either Oxford or Cambridge, from James Bond and Charles Xavier to 41 out of 55 British prime ministers. (114 other institutions are also available.)
I hope that some of that information was useful to you. I am here to answer your brit-picking university (especially Oxbridge) questions if you have them!
(* = an edit has been made)