U.K.’s hands-off education policy puts students in control

From behind, wild cackling erupts from the depths of someone’s throat. To the left, gangly arms flail about hoping to catch fleeting attention. Screams, loud noises and laughter give the room an air of madness.

No, you’re not in a zoo. You’re in a classroom in City University London the sixth most popular university in the United Kingdom for new student applications. Despite the raucous classroom scene, City University — located in the borough of Islington — takes pride in pumping out highly qualified and employable graduates.

With more than 23,000 students, the university enrolls an extremely diverse student body, having more than 40 percent of its students as international applicants, which is more than any other school in the United Kingdom.

Maybe that’s why when I looked around the unruly classroom on my first day as one of those international students, I saw others from a wide variety of backgrounds dozing off, chatting with their neighbors during lecture and arguing with the professor about test fairness.

A girl wearing brown polka dots loudly told her friends about her sexual conquests from the previous weekend. A boy complained about having to attend mandatory discussions. It took a few minutes, but the flustered professor finally told the class to “shut up,” asking us to stop contesting her syllabus.

Although this debacle was the exception to how most of my other classes proceeded, it reflected the lax and seemingly disorganized approach, in general, to education in the United Kingdom.

There are many differences between pursuing higher education in the United States and in England. Firstly, people pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the United Kingdom attend school for only three years. Like in the United States, they study everything from medicine and economics to music and design.

Instead of majoring in English, however, students “read” in a subject. Instead of buying books, the majority of people borrow them from the library. Participating in lecture is actually frowned upon, deferring student feedback to tutorials and clinics, which are similar to USC’s discussion sections.

Even grading scales reflect the somber attitude toward learning. Typically, a grade of 40 percent or better passes a class, while a grade of 70 percent can be considered an A.

Dr. Julia McDonald, study abroad manager at City University, compares taking a class in the United Kingdom to the high jump — succeeding requires gradually working your way up to the end of the line and then taking the final leap.

Instead of overcoming regular short-term hurdles, where assignments are due every few weeks and midterms gauge your progress, U.K. students usually only have one or two papers and a final exam with no other system of accountability in place.

In my international politics class, 30 percent of my grade is based on one essay. The other 70 percent comes from the final. Attendance and participation are not taken into consideration at all. Requirements place more emphasis on studying on your own time than attending lecture. As a result, students must be more proactive in keeping up with the coursework.

Theoretically, I could skip classes, turn in one paper and show up on the last day to take the test. As nice as that sounds however, the only loser in that situation would be me.

Because the system rewards self-discipline and encourages individual effort, classes meet fewer times a week and offer a more flexible structure conducive to independent study. It also, however, makes it a lot more tempting to slack off until the end and fail a class.

Although the lenient approaches to student interaction could easily breed a disconnect between students and teachers, the opposite is true.

The administration is able to guarantee a spot for all students in every class, professors know most students by name and, most importantly, they encourage personal growth.

It felt exhilarating to show up to a class unregistered, knowing that I would have a place in it. I didn’t have to worry about the best way to coax the professor into signing my add/drop form or even about being stuck in a class I didn’t like.

I didn’t have to wade through an endless throng of students to get to the reception desk, only to have to make an appointment. I strolled into my advisor’s office and was immediately able to speak with a friendly woman who already knew me by name after only a brief encounter. The biggest difficulty I encountered was finding the room.

Despite all the of the differences between higher education policy in the United States and Britain, studies show that students in the United Kingdom have a greater chance of being employed full time six months after graduation than those in the United States.

To the wily American student used to rigid structures, the U.K. education system may seem confusing and in disarray, but within the chaos is a process with proven results.