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In my last post, I described how luck, fate and a bit of hard work landed me a place on a 12-month foreign exchange program to the University of Queensland back in 2001. In this blog post I’ll run through the main differences between university in Australia compared to the UK, based on my year in Brisbane compared to the University of Sheffield in the UK, where I took the rest of my degree. I’ll start off with a comparison of the fun stuff, but keep going to the bottom to read about the serious work-related side of things!
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Australian Weather – Hot, Wet & Wild!
The most obvious difference between Brisbane and Sheffield was the weather. Situated up in Queensland, Brisbane is much, much warmer than Sheffield, so there was no more sliding down icy hills to lectures, grabbing onto fences for dear life. There was even a manmade beach and lagoon at South Bank in the city centre!
But it wasn’t just the temperature that differed: Brisbane’s wet season falls in summer, bringing with it some serious tropical rainfall. As the Christmas holidays approached and the first torrential summer downpour began, rather than cower indoors like we would in England, the Aussies grabbed their body boards, raced outside onto the sports field and started skidding across the wet grass on their stomachs!
Australian Wildlife – Big, Bright & Bolshy
The most exciting creatures you were likely to come across in Sheffield were house spiders, squirrels and perhaps a passing sparrow. Not in Brisbane. There you were treated to sparkly Christmas beetles zooming into your room, flying cockroaches, geckos climbing the walls and a variety of large, colourful birds that would barge around the outdoor dining area hoping to steal your dinner. The most bizarre thing of all was seeing wild brush turkeys wandering down the street!
Student Accommodation – UK Halls of Residence vs Australian College
What us Brits call a halls of residence, Australians call a college, and they’re just as common at universities in Australia as they are in the UK, with a lot of similarities. In both countries they’re usually big, multi-storey buildings with small, private rooms featuring a single bed, desk and wardrobe. And as you can see from my pictures below (I’m sure you can guess which photo is in which country by the suntans!) both involve the glamorous, prison-like decor of exposed brickwork painted white. Why bother plastering the walls just for students?!
Two other foreign exchange students from Sheffield (Liz and Sam) and I all chose to stay in the mixed-sex, non-religious Union College, which was the cheapest option, but there were also lots of colleges that were single sex or had religious affiliations, which I’ve never heard of in the UK. Union College also housed students from two different universities, which wouldn’t have happened in Sheffield! It was also common to stay in halls for your entire degree in Australia, rather than move into a house in your second year like most students did in the UK.
A big bonus at Ranmoor House, my (now demolished) halls in Sheffield, was the onsite bar that was open most nights. We didn’t have that in Australia, although we did have function rooms for events. Union College definitely had a few more perks than Ranmoor though, with its on-site gym, sports oval, TV room with a giant screen, outdoor dining area and surrounding greenery full of tropical birds. It also had a self-service salad and vegetable bar so you could indulge in more than the lump of over-cooked broccoli that got dolloped on your plate by the Sheffield dinner ladies!
Being a Foreign Exchange Student in Australia
I only remember meeting a couple of people from other countries in Sheffield, but I wasn’t alone in being a foreign exchange student at the University of Queensland. Union College was very multicultural, and we even attended a special dinner during our first week to meet all the other international students. We made friends from all over the world that year (Canada, USA, Singapore, Russia and Korea to name a few), and everyone was in high spirits and wanted to make the most of their time in Australia. We had grown men in tears when we all had to go back home at the end!
Student Nightlife: Nightclubs vs College Parties
Both universities had a huge emphasis on extra-curricular fun. Sheffield has a large student population so the nightlife was always buzzing. With hip-hop nights, back-street indie clubs, the world-famous Gatecrasher and cheesy discos galore, there was something for everyone, and you were spoiled for choice almost every night of the week. Sheffield also has one of the best student unions in the UK, with its own bar and club nights. They even organised free buses between the halls and student nights at venues around the city.
The student nightlife scene in Brisbane was very different to in Sheffield. While the city did have a clubbing scene, student nights were usually held in late-night bars with dancefloors, and the union didn’t get involved with nightlife at all. Australia definitely had the edge on pub nights though, which nearly always featured live music and beer gardens.
This doesn’t mean that the social scene was poor at the University of Queensland though. I’d actually say it was a lot wilder! Instead of nightclubs the emphasis was on parties held on the college grounds, which were absolutely legendary. All the various colleges took it in turns to host events, so every couple of weeks or so you’d go to a different party at a different college, which was like going to house parties but outdoors and with a couple of hundred people.
These usually involved a fancy dress theme, and cross-dressing was taken very seriously – legs were shaven and nails were painted! I’d often have a queue of boys outside my room waiting to raid my wardrobe and have their makeup done! No one thought they were too cool for anything; there was zero pretentiousness. It was all about being silly and having as much fun as possible.
Big Balls, Mini Balls & the Ritual of Recovery
Continuing on the nightlife theme, both universities had pretty spectacular balls, but rather than stick to big formal balls like Ranmoor House in Sheffield did, Union College liked to alternate their black-tie event with a “Mini-Ball”, which was, unsurprisingly, fancy dress.
But the main difference wasn’t the dresscode, it was the bizarre ritual held the day after. In Sheffield, and probably the rest of the world, you’d spend the day after a student ball squeezed onto someone’s single bed with all your friends watching Dawson’s Creek on the only TV set on the corridor (remember I started uni in 1999!) and nursing your hangover.
Not at UQ! Taking hair of the dog to another level, an all-day event called “Recovery” took place, where you were picked up by a bus after breakfast and taken to a field where giant vats of alcohol, a hosepipe and plastic sheeting awaited. The long-running tradition was to get drunk, get wet and muddy, slide around on the plastic sheets and literally rip each other’s clothes off.
Australian Sporting Culture
The rumours are true: Australia has a much bigger emphasis on sports than the UK. While there was plenty of partying going on, there was also a lot of sports events, from casual football matches on the on-site pitch, to organised rowing regattas between colleges. We had plenty of sporty friends too who weren’t really into the party scene.
Australian Dress Code – Let Me See That Tho-o-ong
Forget the wet-weather trainers and painful high-heels we tottered around in on nights out back in Sheffield – in Brisbane girls required two pairs of footwear only: rubber thongs (flip-flops) for the daytime and dressy “going-out” thongs for the evening. Lectures required a t-shirt and a pair of board shorts, even for some of the lecturers. Wardrobe done.
Nudity – The Australian Body Confidence
Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was the booze, but at the merest sniff of alcohol the Aussies would be whipping their clothes off and streaking across the sports oval as if their life depended on it. The ever-popular “nudie run” was a standard university tradition – like exams and lectures. While the American exchange students were usually only too happy to join in, us Brits tended to stand uncomfortably at the sidelines, politely forcing a smile and hoping we weren’t expected to participate. Oh, and if a song called Eagle Rock came on in a bar every male in the room would instantly drop their trousers. No idea why.
Beach Weekends and Travel Adventures!
A Saturday outing in Sheffield would usually be to Meadowhall Shopping Centre, or occasionally the Peak District, but with Brisbane being only an hour’s train ride away from the Gold Coast, it was easy to pop down to Surfer’s Paradise on the weekend for a day at the beach. And since some of our friends had family down there, we’d occasionally get to stay over and have a party on a Saturday night.
Since Australia is so huge, many of the students were too far away from their family homes to nip back for visits, plus a lot of our friends were foreign exchange students. This meant we could organise group adventures during the shorter holidays like this one to Fraser Island!
One of the best parts about university in Australia was having the summer holidays fall at Christmas time. I got my first taste of backpacking on a three-month Oz Experience bus tour with my fellow Sheffield exchange student Liz, stopping off at our new friends’ houses along the way.
Study & Workload – The Serious Stuff
It might be hard to believe, but in between the beach days and the cross-dressing and the sliding around in the mud, we did actually attend lectures and do serious stuff like take exams and write assignments. As British exchange students, our results counted towards our overall degree mark, so we had to work pretty hard compared to foreign exchange students from other countries, who only had to pass the year. Here are the differences between studying at an Australian university compared to in the UK.
Vocational vs Academic Subjects
In the UK it’s common to take degrees in academic subjects like maths, geography, English or history. In Australia, vocational subjects like engineering are much more popular. Or if they do study an academic subject, it often has a broader title like “science”. My maths lectures in Sheffield usually had over 100 students in, but in Australia they only had between 10 and 30! Most Australians looked utterly confused when I said I was doing a maths degree!
Laid Back Lectures
The atmosphere at the University of Queensland was very laid back, with some of the younger lecturers wandering around bare foot in shorts and t-shirts. In the UK things were much more formal; most professors were over 50 and wore a shirt and tie. I distinctly remember a student in Brisbane answering their mobile mid-lecture once and casually walking out to take the call. That would never have been allowed to happen in Sheffield!
The grading system was different in Australia too. In the UK your results for each module were given as an exact percentage, where 70% and above was a 1st, 60%-69% was a 2:1 and so on. UQ operated on a GPA (Grade Point Average) basis where you were given a mark out of seven (with seven being 85% or above, six being 75%-84% etc) and never knew your exact percentage. So our English lecturers had to try and translate this into the UK system when we got back.
The big bonus in Australia, for me at least, was the ability to get much higher marks than you ever could in the UK. This wasn’t because the work was easier – the course content was equally hard in both countries, and the total hours of lectures was the same – but Australia had a much better structure for maths.
In Sheffield I had 12 hours of lectures a week split between six subjects each semester, so a total of 12 subjects and 12 exams a year. There was barely any coursework – it was almost 100% exam based – and when there was coursework you weren’t allowed to get help on it.
In Brisbane I also had 12 hours of lectures per week, but split over four subjects each semester, so a total of eight subjects and eight exams per year, but with deeper course content per subject. There was also much more coursework, and you were allowed to ask lecturers questions on it if you were stuck. For one subject in Australia I even got marks just for turning up to the tutorials – apparently the norm in America!
I found it infinitely easier to concentrate on four subjects and four exams per semester than six, which bumped my marks up no end. When my results were transferred over to a percentage in the UK it was much higher than I would have got if I’d stayed at home, which counted for 40% of my final grade. My marks for my years in Sheffield were still in the same band, but at the lower end rather than the top. The boost meant there was much less pressure in my final year as my average was already high.
I can’t recommend studying abroad enough. My year as a foreign exchange student in Brisbane was one of the best of my life, and what led me to eventually moving to Australia long term. (Note that it didn’t give me any advantages or extra points in the visa process when getting my permanent residency though.) If you’re interested in finding a study abroad program, take a look at this blog post I wrote covering some of your options and the benefits you’ll reap.
If you want to discover more differences between Australia vs UK, here’s my blog post on the funny little things out in Australian suburbia that Brits might find unusual.