Snapshots and Learnings from 5 Years in the UK

Moving back to the U.S. next month

March 21, 2019

“They're laughing on the inside.”

The first talk that I gave at a UK higher education conference was quite instructive. After sharing something that I thought was relatively humorous, the audience barely made a sound. Coming home on the train, I was a bit concerned. As a speaker, audience engagement is everything...and apparently I wasn't funny in the UK.

Thankfully, my wife reassured me that whilst sometimes overt laughter would take place during a keynote, “laughing on the inside” would also happen with a British audience. Ironically, whenever I share this story with a British audience, everyone laughs out loud.

This was the first of hundreds of cultural learnings that I experienced during my time living and working in a new country. 5 years of working with colleges and universities in the UK has required quite a bit of linguistic gymnastics. Although we speak English in the US and the UK, words often have different meaning...especially in higher education.

While this list isn't exhaustive, it does represent a large portion of the differences between UK and US HE:

  • UK university* = US school/university/college
  • UK course = US major/degree
  • UK module = US course
  • UK mostly academic focused | US mostly student focused
  • UK subject specific undergrad course ≠ US broad-based undergrad degree
  • UK “go to university” = US “go to college”
  • UK staff/academics = US faculty/academics
  • UK student services = US student affairs
  • UK professional services staff/non-academic staff = US staff
  • UK undergraduate course generally takes 3 years to complete = US undergraduate degree can take 4, 5, 6 or more years to complete
  • UK tutor = sort of like a US academic advisor
  • UK post grad course = US masters degree
  • UK learnings = US lessons? (the plural of learning isn't generally used Stateside)
  • UK revising = US studying
  • UK editing = US revising
  • UK Brexit = US Trump (both are quite bad for their respective countries...and the rest of the world)
  • UK Russell Group = US Ivy League
  • UK pastoral care = US residence life / academic advisers / counseling services / etc.
  • UK student accommodation = US residence hall
  • UK estate = US campus
  • UK canteen = US cafeteria

* Sometimes a UK college is part of a university (e.g. Oxford University** is made up of more than 30 different colleges) and sometimes a UK college is a further education (FE) institution which can sometimes grant HE degrees.

** My last UK consulting engagement, at least during my time as a resident of the UK, will be at the University of Oxford (it's acceptable to say 'University of' or '____ University'). Also, my family and I are moving back to the US next month.


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