Universities across the atlantic: A comparative piece

Olivia Alvord, Staff Writer


My adviser told me that nothing would be certain during the first week of classes. This semester I am studying at St. Mary’s University College in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The first difference I noticed was scheduling. In the U.S., and specifically from my experience at St. Martin’s University, we are trained to think about our schedules for the following semesters very carefully, and plan everything in advance. When it is the middle of the Fall semester, students register for the courses that they wish to take in the Spring, and by the time that it is Spring, they know every class to take and can make minor changes accordingly. When I was accepted into the Irish American Scholars Program in March, the first thing that I asked was when I could figure out my class schedule. They told me that I would be working on it the first week that I arrived. That idea was very foreign to me from my previous experiences in school. I arrived here on Sept. 18 and did not begin to think about courses until Sept. 23, when I met with my adviser. It is now the end of the first week of classes and I have attended one course-Irish History-as this is the only course that has had a set time and day from my selected classes so far. I will learn the exact details of my other courses by the beginning of next week. Although this is strange to me, I am adjusting to the casual ways of schooling here. 

Classes in Ireland are also held less often than those in the U.S. For example, I am taking six classes here and they only meet once or twice a week for 1 to 2 hours. There are also many courses that are for only half of the semester, like my curriculum studies course that I will only have to attend from weeks seven to 12. The number of physical classes that I actually have to attend is minimal and it gives me every Thursday and Friday off and more time to explore.

Another key thing that I have noticed, which is very different from the schooling that I have had in the U.S., is grades. For the classes that I have had so far, a score of 70 to 100 percent is an A. This is much different than what we are used to in the U.S., with 90 to 100 percent and sometimes even 95 to 100 percent is considered an A. Additionally, the courses are basically evaluated on two key components: attendance and assessment. In most of my classes in Ireland, students should be attending classes no less than 75 percent of the time, whereas, I am used to very strict attendance expectations in the U.S. Students in Northern Ireland are mandated to do projects, presentations, and prepare for the end of term assessment in order to pass the course, but there are minimal amounts of homework involved in that process. This is vastly different from the huge focus on homework in the U.S., and takes away from the “busy work” factor of U.S. education. 

Last but not least is the money factor. I was talking with my adviser about the cost differences in Belfast compared to Saint Martin’s. She said that students here do not get scholarships or grants, they just have a basic $3,000 fee to attend the university per semester, which is much different than universities and colleges in the U.S. This may also be the reason that fees over here are not “all inclusive” in that the initial price of attendance and everything is paid for separately. For example, at Saint Martin’s, I pay an activity fee each semester that I attend, and that money is pooled from all the students so that the activity staff can provide “free” events to students all semester long. In Belfast, every event is held off campus (there is not a big student building where they can host events, it is more of just a hangout spot) and costs money to attend (usually anywhere from $4 to $15).


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