In St Andrews, the debate about UK vs North American Universities seems to be a hotter topic than usual. This is probably due to its being a small town where both populations are particularly well represented. Naturally, both systems have their advantages and disadvantages in this regard. North America is great. It’s beautiful, it’s fascinating, it’s aca- demically at the top of its game (albeit the money you have to pay to receive tuition at a top college in the US is, by European standards, eye-watering). One thing which it is also, is fundamentally different from the British system of University education. But University and getting a job are, after all, separate things. They do not deserve to be too heavily conflated.
US universities are good at offering a Humanist degree in which students will take a bit of everything and hopefully come out with a well-rounded education. In Canada, students take more modules than in the UK, hopefully for a wider range of study. A couple of things to be said about this, though: it doesn’t automatically make for a better education, depending on whether you consider breadth of learning superior to depth. Secondly, it may also account for the fact that far more North American graduates have postgraduate degrees than their English counterparts; because there is much less opportunity to specialise in an undergraduate degree than there is here. If it is a case of when, not if, you might specialise, then the argument becomes moot.
This brings me on to the idea of study as preparation for a job. This should surely never be the case. Academia is meant to be explored for its own joys, not for its employability factor. The debate over whether universities should move closer to a culture of careers preparation or remain focused on study for study’s sake is important. In Britain, we may no longer prefer rule by amateurs, but our culture of work is certainly still less regimented than that of North America. We don’t need to be taught about deadlines and project management, surely we’re actively doing these things already? Besides this, the name of the university we attend, now more than ever an indicator of employability, probably contributes to the possibility of a job interview more than any of these skills.
What’s more, most jobs need degrees, but only the ones that well-educated graduates are looking at. In the UK, if I wanted to chuck it all in tomorrow and be a builder (and quite frankly I’d probably make just as much money, if not more, than I would in a standard graduate job), I could do so, but the possession of a degree would not become automatically useless overnight if it possessed intrinsic academic merit.
In terms of getting a job specifically as a St Andrews graduate (discounting any Dukes and Duchesses), the alumni list seems to speak for itself. St Andrews graduates occupy positions in practically every major field. I’ve met them in law, business, retail; they’re everywhere holding their own with Oxbridge, Durham, Leeds and the rest of the Russell Group, and the rest of the world. Key skills for work do not come from what your degree consists of, they come from the act of doing it. They come from staying up late, working on weekends, spending countless hours in the library; all of the things which education does not account for, but rather personal ambition does. In this way, there is no difference between a North American and UK graduate at all.
I’m from a pretty ordinary background, and I certainly wouldn’t have had the money to go to the US-equivalent of St Andrews. I might bet that I wouldn’t have been gifted enough to get a scholarship, either. I also would have had no desire for a wider education than I received here. Three years in, after German, International Relations, Comparative Literature, and finally a degree taught by some of the best English scholars I’ve ever met, I can’t honestly say greater breadth would have helped me in any foreseeable way.
The UK is home to some of the best institutions of learning in the world. But jobs are a different matter; they come from a different place. Study should be done for the joys of study. If we work hard in that, then getting a job should be within reach wherever we are. In the UK and North America, this still remains the case.