UK Education VS US Education Higher

Why UK universities should adopt US-style degrees

Harvard Students Leaving Sever HallHarvard University: students in the US are offered far more flexibility in their degree courses. Photograph: Mark Peterson/ Mark Peterson/CORBIS

I am finishing my 20th year of teaching in the UK. I came to Lancaster University from my native US in 1994, and in 2006 I left Lancaster for the University of Aberdeen. I was born, raised, and educated in the US. But by now I think I fathom the very different UK conventions.

David Willetts, the universities minister, is encouraging UK universities to introduce the US custom of having both a major subject, which can be anything, and a minor one, which can be anything else. A handful of universities have already adopted the approach, and Willetts is anxious to keep British students from leaving the UK for a more flexible degree in the US.

If only Willetts knew what he is talking about! Most US undergraduates choose just a major and not also a minor. And instead of a minor, almost as many choose what is called a "double major, " which is the same as a traditional joint honours degree in the UK. (In the US "honours, " spelled without the "u, " refers to the final degree classification and not to the length of study.)

The attraction of a US undergraduate degree is indeed its flexibility, but that flexibility comes only incidentally through the option of a minor. The greater part of the flexibility comes from the deferred selection of even a major until the third year of one's undergraduate studies, which in the US, as in Scotland, last for four years and not for a mere three.

Breadth is better than depth

Professional degrees in the US – law, medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine and, in part, business – are postgraduate degrees, and one can major in anything and still be eligible to get into a top professional programme in these competitive professions.

Therefore aspiring lawyers, doctors, dentists and vets are under no pressure to specialise in any named field, let alone from their first year. Want to up your chances of getting into a US medical school? Major in classics. Breadth trumps depth.

Undergraduates in the US are admitted by the university itself, not by any department. They need not declare even a prospective major in their application, and they are not held to any subject toward which they have professed a proclivity.

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