Diary of a Third Year: 'In Britain you get a degree – in Canada you get an education'

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The Independent Online

I got a bit bored studying history at Sheffield University in my first year. I felt like a change, so when the chance to study abroad came up, I seized it and fetched up at the University of Alberta in Canada.

What first struck me was the range of topics on offer. I could take classes in any faculty and (providing I could keep up) at any level. In Britain your degree is a set menu, whereas in Canada you study what you like. It's a tapas degree.

This has its pros and its cons. The lack of structure meant students could spread themselves too thin, over too many topics. It also meant that students could, if they were lazier, choose the easiest classes from each faculty, while ducking more challenging ones. The plus side was that I got a much broader education – you can't graduate from a Canadian university without doing some maths or a bit of science, even if you're a numbskull with numbers. Put bluntly, in Britain you get a degree, whereas in Canada you get an education.

But what type of education? Because Canadian students study so many topics, they do so in less depth. Despite being only a second year, I took mainly third- and fourth-year classes without struggling. If I had tried to do this in my home university, I would have drowned under my reading list.

I even took a graduate module. This only happened because the class I was planning to take disappeared due to so few people wanting to take it. When I mentioned in the first seminar that I thought it might be too advanced for me, I was told not to be so silly by the professor, and that, of course, I'd be able to take it. That brings me to another aspect of my Canadian experience: the relentless optimism.

School pride is a phrase usually associated with America, but – compared to the dismal whining that envelopes students and professors in the UK whenever their university comes up in conversation – Canadians had it in droves. Hundreds turn out to watch the university sports teams. Alberta's 100th birthday was met with mass rallies. By contrast, Sheffield's recent century was marked by a rather dry history book and a few newly minted sweatshirts.

Alberta has big plans: it wants to be ranked in the top 20 universities in the world by 2020 and is going to fund this largely through donations. A fund-raising drive managed to net £300m, a figure that Sheffield and many other Russell Group universities would salivate over.

The optimism had one downside, however. Seminars were often taken up by someone holding forth despite having done none of the reading – a basic knowledge of the topic being seen as superfluous to their opinion, which is always worth hearing. When you've walked to university in minus 30C, hearing how "Rousseau was so, like, ahead of his time" can grate.

But then I'm not Canadian, so there's always something to complain about.