Posted by: Gillian | July 20, 2010

American or British degree?

Does it matter which country awards your degree? An article in The Chronicle makes public a conversation that has been carrying on for years in more protected circles: can the large-scale US higher education providers take over the UK HE sector? Prestige, reputation, content, contacts, transferability, price – oh, let’s not forget price! Seriously, does it matter?

Quite apart from the very serious questions surrounding national branding of HE, yes, it does matter.  Many employers, students and parents do not understand the differences.


The old wisdom is that the higher the degree, the more you know about less.  In other words, you narrow your field of study until you can become the world expert on potato beetle in the Outer Sub-Delta of Ibstan. In becoming this expert, you jump through various university degree hoops and even here, the US and the UK do not agree.  The US has ‘Associates degrees’.  To the UK ear, these sound like evening classes – probably for the privileged – but they are the first two years of a full 4-year Bachelor programme.  After that, the degree titles stay the same but the content can be very different.

Bachelors degrees in the US start with a wide base.  Those first two years may compulsorily include math, language, social science, science…  In the UK, a degree that requires all that is ‘um, different!’, socially difficult to comprehend.  Didn’t you do that at school? (i.e. under-18)  To balance that, in the US people may look askance if you do not have ‘micro’, ‘macro’ (both economics) or ‘statistics’ or ‘quants’. Stats and quants may well be covered in UK pre-18 education under another title but the devil is in the detail.

Masters degrees are hugely dependent on the underpinning Bachelors degrees.  They can be degree+1, in other words, a Bachelors degree plus one more year of taught courses.  Or they can be two years of research.  The US and Scotland tend to the former.  England tends to the latter.  Neither is absolute.  Accepting any one Masters as equivalent to any other is a nightmare.

Because of the assumed broad base of a Bachelors degree, US PhDs tend to be five years on-campus taught.  UK PhDs, on the other hand, tend to be research with the supervision varying in intensity. Some institutions require taught courses while others see no need.  PhDs by publication are really rare but these are PhDs of equal weight to any other given all the caveats about who awards them.  To get a PhD by publication you need to show progression of thought in a discipline over a period of time and a research and reference history to back that up.

Industrial content

All degrees have descriptions that may include outcomes or objectives (or both) and there are varying levels of oversight about how appropriate these are.   Governmental bodies exist to list universities but in the US it is the Regional accrediting authorities that are more influential whereas in the UK any course not on the government list is  just not accepted.  Beyond this, non-governmental accreditation bodies exist to give some level of assurance about equivalance but highly reputable universities can and do exist outside these non-governmenental systems. This means there is some standardisation of content for degrees with similar titles.  This ‘core body of knowledge’ is easily reduced to a set of courses with pass/fail exams that can be components in degrees worldwide. There can be nothing inadmissably ‘wrong’ with this because core knowledge is core.  The question for the individual is, how does this fit with the development of learning how to learn, social development, transferability and longterm employability?

International degrees

Whether considering a US/UK or UK/US transfer or debating which of the two countries systems to enter, there is really only one question – other than the all-essential money – that must be answered satisfactorily: will the degree of choice deliver something you will be proud of and find helpful three years after graduation?  The first year can be given over to a hazy glow of self-congratulation but Year3 is when you will probably be looking for (further) promotion and maybe re-engaging with academic life.  That is when the US/Brit decision really matters if you are heading for the academic rather than the employment route.  Galloping to catch up with depth or being sent off to do ‘remedial’ quants is no fun.

Academic credit conversion

As trends to lifelong learning and interweaving of university and employed lives continue, the basic international differences in education systems should become less of an obstacle because the systems will simply have to become more used to accepting people with different backgrounds and far more economic in assessing the prior education and learning (APEL).  National economies with ageing populations will not survive unless that happens.  For the moment, people crossing borders are still pioneers whether they come from the US, India, the UK, China or anywhere else.  There are international credit translation/conversion agencies. If you need to use these, as well you might, make sure you get the best long-term deal for your study as ‘double-counting’ is not allowed in reputable universities.  Tell the agency and your target institution if you intend to move on to another degree and make sure counting one course ‘now’ does not mean you have to take extra courses later.

Social networks

David Winter has just blogged about the importance of social development and networking in education.  Some locations prefer to count the badges when offering employment while others work very much more on who you know and/or how well you fit within teams.  In academia, counting the badges may be replaced by knowing precisely which course and which supervisor you last had.  Whatever the case, the social fit, while it may include nationality, does not over-ride it.  Ask yourself: will I fit where I want to be in ten years’ time?  Bear in mind that global education is changing.

In summary

Neither system is ‘better’ but they are different and if you are a global edu-shopper, you need to know what you want several years after graduation.  You also need to take an informed leap of faith as the markets converge and standards adjust.


  1. The globalization of education is causing us to redefine “qualifications”, “learning” and “accreditation”. The Global University for Lifelong Learning (GULL), for example, is offering professional degrees globally under the auspices of Global Leaders. For example, GULL is working with World Vision in Haiti to bring award recognition to young volunteer community workers who are teaching children in the tent camps. World Vision staff act as mentors and gain a Master’s degree in the process. The community workers gain a Bachelor Degree in Community Education. Awards are granted on the basis of documentation (including a daily learning journal), evidence of outcomes at the personal, organizational and community levels and a validating interview.

    We have to go beyond the constraints of formal education with its structured curriculum if we are to address the real learning and growth needs of people in environments that are not constrained by classroom walls (as they no longer exists because of the earthquake!). Is the Haiti earthquake, and the collapse of the walls in schools and universities, symbolic of the collapse of formal education and the release of new ways of learning and validated being-in-the-world?

  2. Thanks for this information, Ron.

    On education in general, I would hate to think that formal education is in quite such a state of disaster but education without walls, individualised learning and enquiry-based learning are certainly changing the nature of the programmes on offer. Use of social media is also contributing to this because how can a traditional university control the learning environment (e.g. with an LMS) when the students are using so many other methods to communicate with each other and with people outside the university who have expertise/ideas?

  3. Greetings from South Asian Academy for Good Governance, Sri Lanka. We are presently working with Global University for Lifelong Learning – USA and Victoria Global University through National Institute for Education and and Research – India. We find recognitions granted by these universities based on action learning, distance education and life experiences are quite useful for those who have not got such opportunities under the traditional systems. We are looking forward to learn more about this subject. Thanks.

    • Greetings, Dr Bandara. I agree that action learning can be a very useful route for some non-traditional students (and some traditional ones!). There are, of course, many universities that offer non-traditional routes (e.g. accreditation of portfolios of evidence, professional qualification+dissertation, oral examination, degree by publication, programs running over a decade or more, flexible delivery modes, tiered qualifications with varying ‘exit’ points)) and there is a place and purpose for each. Recently, I have been having discussions about whether students are ‘products’ of a university or ‘consumers’ of qualifications. That is a subject important to the design of non-traditional learning and should perhpas be the subject of another blog but I look forward to your thoughts on the subject.

  4. Greetings from South Asian Academy for Good Governance ! Thank you for your most encouraging ideas. Your questions whether the students are products of universities or consumers of qualifications are really interesting. My view is either none or both. However, I feel learning is a spiritual journey and continues without boundaries, after death and in next births. Therefore, suppoting people for getting recognitions for their achievements is not a mere commercial concern but a spiritual one. I am happy to learn more about your ideas.

  5. Thank you for your most encouraging ideas. Your questions whether the students are products of universities or consumers of qualifications are really interesting. My view is either none or both. However, I feel learning is a spiritual journey and continues without boundaries, after death and in next births. Therefore, suppoting people for getting recognitions for their achievements is not a mere commercial concern but a spiritual one. I am happy to learn more about your ideas.

    • I believe purpose of education is empowerment of the student. Swami Vivekananda said Education is teaching a person how to stand on his own legs. If the socalled graduates from the traditional system are not able to make a substantial contribution to change the existing system through poverty alleviation, peace building, democratization etc what is the ultimate result that the society achieves as the tax payers or the sponsors of education. That is where the need arises for alternatives, action learning, lifelong lerearning, continuous education or distance education. I hope the academia should be concerned about this phenomenon and support alternative approaches to higher education through recognition of prior learning and work experiences.
      The ultimate goal of all of us, I believe, is to make the world a better place for the future generations to live peacfully, without fear of hunger or violence.I hope to hear from learned friends. Thanks and regards.

What are your views on this?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: