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!
You would think this pretty document, dating from 1551, is a charter issued by a duke or a royal court. However, it is a university diploma from the University of Aix. It was handed out by the chancellor to a student (a monk). How times have changed: it is a giant leap from this colourful piece of parchment to the printed piece of paper handed out by universities today.
Pics: Aix en Provence, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 752 (dated 1551).
Prisons and universities are two sides of the same coin
Popular narratives portray society as made up of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people. Figures of the citizen, the worker, and the graduate are contrasted with the deviant, the criminal, and the dropout. For the safety of ‘good’ people, we are supposed to put ‘bad’ people in separate places. When they are younger, those stigmatized as ‘bad kids’—as delinquents, failures, dropouts—are sent to lower tracked courses, detention, or juvenile hall. If they continue ‘down’ this criminalized life path, they are sent to jails and prisons. By contrast, those deemed ‘good’ through the categorizing and sorting of education are admitted to the place where ‘good’ people rise: ‘up’ through the school grades and into higher education.
Prisons and universities complement each other as two sides of the same coin. They are institutions for producing obedient, governable subjects—shaped in an accounting mode with incarceration for ‘debts to society’ and education for ‘credits.’ Abolitionist movements should seek to abolish this whole coin.From a decolonial, abolitionist perspective, this coin is the intersecting regimes of white supremacist, settler colonial, hetero-patriarchal capitalism. Abolitionists have organized against institutions associated with the ‘bad’ side of the dichotomy of ‘good’/‘bad’ persons—including prisons, corporal punishment in schools, the schools-to-prisons pipeline, the death penalty, and the police—as well as against the ‘redemptive’ intermediaries of the military and work. Yet, abolitionists also need to resist institutions, such as higher education, that are associated with the ‘good’ side of the coin.
When considering an abolitionist critique of universities, academics experience anxieties: losing status and competitiveness, giving up comforts, appearing hypocritical, or getting in trouble with employers (or potential employers for the majority of the precarious academic workforce). Rather than dismissing these fears, we need better collective practices for talking, writing, and organizing around these issues — within and against the education system,with communities who are excluded and marginalized from that system, andfor abolitionist, decolonial movements. Trying on our own, as heroic individuals, we get crushed, co-opted, or pushed out. The with and for imperative requires recognizing that people are engaged in teaching and studying outside of universities, including in prisons, all of the time. I’ve learned this through organizing with prisoners and their families in North Carolina (see Inside-Outside Alliance). Their studying together creates new ways of thinking and relating that are more useful for abolitionist resistance than any academic knowledge. Yet, institutions of education de-legitimize their mode of studying. Thus, a central question for abolitionist movements is: how to connect with, amplify, and expand people’s everyday, autonomous studying?
Grounding abolitionism in everyday studying demands continual reflection on how to understand and connect our movements. What if the resources of academia—such as money, spaces, and labor—could be used for supporting collective discussion of abolitionist questions in ways that include people normally marginalized from academia? Such discussions could re-define how we understand ‘resources’ for movement-embedded study, while transforming ourselves and our movements along the way. Abolition is an experiment with, and wager for, these possibilities.
Sometimes, the hardest part is simply knowing where to begin. Here are some tips:
1) Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, even if you don’t think you’ll qualify.
2) Apply for national grants.
Options include Pell Grants, Academic Competitiveness Grants and National SMART Grants.
3) Apply for local scholarships. Civic organizations and religious institutions often have meaningful amounts of aid to dole out.
4) Getting into more than one school translates to a higher likelihood of receiving a big financial aid package.
5) Bargain! Even schools that only provide need-based aid sometimes come up with drastically different offers.
AmeriCorps, Peace Corp, National Health Services Corps and ROTC programs offer college money in exchange for a service commitment.
7) Look abroad. At Scotland’s St. Andrews, U.S. students pay only $21,650.
8) Stay home. Starting out at a low-cost community college and transferring to a four-year college for the final two years will wipe away a hefty chunk of room and board costs, as well as some tuition.
The American Opportunity Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit are two excellent options.
Don’t forget to consult your local expert – guidance counselors are often aware of options you may not have considered; best of all, their help is free.
Prisons and universities complement each other as two sides of the same coin. They are institutions for producing obedient, governable subjects—shaped in an accounting mode with incarceration for ‘debts to society’ and education for ‘credits.’ Abolitionist movements should seek to abolish this whole coin.
Instead of privileging institutional reputation, financial resources and selective studies, such as the U.S News & World Report ranking, the PayScale list offers a cold, hard look at how well-prepared students at each school are when they enter the job market. Notice the glaring lack of Ivy League schools and other traditionally touted colleges. Instead, military schools and tech institutes are well-represented.