A Rivalry of the Ages: Is the British Higher Education System Superior? And How Can America Become Better?

Martha Wyatt-Luth

Staff Writer ‘25

With the pandemic hopefully reaching an end in sight, many individuals are itching to travel abroad. Many students have decided to even study abroad for not only a semester, but their entire undergraduate education. It is quite common to see international students in American colleges and universities since it is currently the top education system according to U.S. World News & Rankings. In fact, 41 of the top 100 ranked global universities are in the United States. 

But right on its back is the United Kingdom, which is not a sore loser, to say the least. With the renowned Oxford tutorial method dating back to the eleventh century, education in the United Kingdom is no laughing stock. The Oxford tutorial model, named for its origination at the University of Oxford, has been a popular style of teaching for centuries due to its uniquely personal education. Using the Socratic method of learning, tutorials establish an open dialogue between the teacher and a student or a group of students.

On the contrary, the American style of higher education is heavily based upon lecture-style classes. The dissemination of knowledge from teacher to student is far more efficient in a lecture-based class where a teacher can speak to a few hundred students at once. However, the small study groups are essential for most obviously answering questions, but also, diving further into that basic knowledge to explore the “how” and “why” of that phenomenon. 

Leading psychologists Marton & Saljo describe the initial dissemination of knowledge in lectures as “surface” and the more specific and dynamic process of learning as “deep.” A minor example of this could be the difference between watching a video about how to solve an algebraic problem versus learning it with a teacher, who can explain how it could be applied in real life and can explore the student’s curiosity in why it is relevant to the “real world.” Not surprisingly, education styles that incorporate “deep learning” have been shown to lead to higher-quality education and long-term memory of knowledge according to professors Michael Prosser and Keith Trigwell. 

More than just receiving a higher quality education, pressuring an undergraduate degree at a tutorial-style college has shown to be more attractive in the U.S. job market. According to the British Council, “Despite limited knowledge of the UK higher education system…Employers are most impressed by the ‘tutorial system of learning’ (71%), ‘earlier specialization in specific subject areas’ (63%), and ‘more independent study’ (60%). Thus, any form of “deep” learning and specialization of study has been shown to be advantageous in the search for employment. However, there is an argument that a strong American liberal arts education is also advantageous in job searches, as it reflects a well-rounded individual capable of completing a variety of tasks and approaching problems from a variety of perspectives.

As great as the tutorial system sounds, it’s currently impossible for all undergraduate colleges to adopt it. The world population is increasing and higher education is becoming more accessible, making the demand for higher education higher and personal teaching less realistic. Colleges would have to acquire far more space and hire far more teachers to reach this needed small ratio of teachers to students. Thus, lecturing has become, and will continue to be, the most popular mode of teaching across America. 

Often, students in America are expected to create study groups or go to a professor’s office hours if they need a more personalized education. According to Danny Saunders, from the Polytechnic of Wales, “informal, unsupervised study groups can sometimes lead to the circulation of inaccurate information” and therefore are both a waste of time and a detriment to a student’s education (2019). In addition to potentially low-quality education from peer study groups, students are more limited on available time to devote to studying. In order to stand out in the job market, students often pursue a myriad of sports, clubs, and volunteering opportunities. 

An ideal middle ground of the American and British educated student is someone that has a foundation in a variety of fields but has been able to further specialize beyond an expected level for a collegiate education through, for example, research or one-on-one advising. As idealistic as this sounds, there is hope for achieving this. Many smaller colleges, such as our beloved College of the Holy Cross, stress the importance of personal education through small-sized classes that are discussion-based. In addition, there is a modern-day movement rising to make a more financially realistic style of teaching that incorporates the personalized education of the Oxford tutorial system. According to the International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, two promising alternatives are “peer instruction” with upperclassmen or teaching assistants, as well as a flipped classroom style. 

Photo Courtesy of Oxford University

Peer-instruction meetings could be counted towards credit for the class to incentivize students, similar to how foreign language classes often require “practicals” to exercise their knowledge of the language with peers and a supervising teacher. They often benefit students by improving academic standings, decreasing the likelihood of dropping out (especially for overwhelmed first years), and promoting the most effective learning strategies. The “aha” moments after being puzzled by a concept are essential for active learning. Along with the academic benefits, peer instruction can provide quality social networking opportunities with upperclassmen. Loneliness is one of the reasons why first-year students are the most likely year of undergraduates to drop out. 

A flipped classroom is a style of learning that shifts the lecture-based material online and devotes the in-person class time to discussions. This format is incredibly efficient by having knowledge already disseminated to students prior to class, so questions and clarifications can be addressed in person. The teacher is no longer the primary source of new information; rather, they are the guide in a student’s journey of understanding that material. Having classes only structured by lectures can create a passive learner. Every student should be the leader of their own education, by learning the material, asking for necessary clarifications, and pursuing concepts further out of curiosity.

As the higher education system continues to transform, advocating for personalized learning is essential for the future of young generations. 

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