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Dec 08

What makes Australian unis unusual

Life at a US university is a lot different from life at an Australian one. Students in the US rarely stay in the same state, much less the same city, when they go to university. The result is that students live away from home and therefore live “in residence” on campus. This lends itself to a much more involving student life, and a much more diverse student body. The Aussie norm is that people go the biggest university in their own city. This concept is alien to Americans. This article expresses that observation well:

But from the point of view of students, perhaps the most striking difference I’ve noticed between Australian universities and those in the other countries in which I’ve worked, is the relative dearth of residence or college places in the older, and best, universities. …

If you are from Sydney you go to a Sydney university; if from Melbourne to one in Melbourne. University students stay at home. They commute to, and home from, the campus. The overall learning experience – in both a narrow academic sense and in a wider life-changing (including having fun) sense – is far inferior to going to a residence university.

Given any two universities even remotely comparable in their academic excellence, if one is residence and the other commuter, students should do whatever they possibly can to attend the residence one. (emphasis added)

I thoroughly agree with this article. I attended my first two years at UNSW living from home. It was a two hour commute each way, making for a total of four hours of travel each day. With that much travelling time, I didn’t hang around campus much more than I needed to. Socializing was done in the breaks between classes and on Friday nights and weekends. If class time at uni for a day was less than the travelling time, I just wouldn’t turn up at all. It wasn’t worth it. I certainly wasn’t in the mood to get involved in any extra-curricular activities. During my second year, I started working in North Sydney, which meant that I was travelling for five hours a day. I finally had enough, and moved into an apartment 5 minutes’ walk from campus. That made a world of difference – it was so much easier to get involved in campus life and activities, although there was still the tendency for people to disperse to the suburbs after classes. (While my 4 hour commute was unusual, a great deal of people had 2-3 hour commutes.)

When everyone lives on or near campus, the difference is phenomenal. It builds a student community. I have a feeling that’s one of the reasons why, despite the law school student body here being more than five times smaller than UNSW law school, the events organized by the students here easily doubles what UNSW offered. (To be sure, there’s more money flowing around here, but the UNSW Law Society was nonetheless the best funded law student organization in Australia when I was there.) It’s hard to meet people to arrange things when they are only in at uni for a few hours each day, and most of that time is spent in classes. When you’re on campus, it’s easy to just “drop in” at all hours of the day. It’s so much more time efficient as well. So, in relation to this particular aspect, I’m a great believer in the US education system.

In contrast, I think Australia is unusual. For many Asian countries, it seems usual for students to travel overseas for education, and I think they are better for it. When I was finishing up high school, it wasn’t even on my radar to consider an overseas, or even an interstate, university. But I think that it should have been. I don’t think the culture of Australian universities in terms of changing to an in-residence culture will eventuate anytime soon, so looking to overseas universities is a great alternative. (Just come back to Australia afterwards!)