With increasing numbers of students choosing to spend a year abroad, Hannah Byrne investigates the cultural and educational differences they may encounter.
Going on an Erasmus year has become a staple in the lives of many students throughout Europe. The Erasmus + programme, set up in 1987, has seen millions of students around the continent spend either a semester or a full academic year in another European university, experiencing a different lifestyle, culture, and teaching style. UCD Global sent 641 students on exchange programmes during the 2021/22 academic year and is projected to send 887 students in 2022/23. Going on an Erasmus year is often termed colloquially as a ‘fun year’ or a ‘year off’ when, in reality, there is a lot more to it than a long holiday. For many students, doing an Erasmus year will count towards their final degree, and so the academic challenges facing the student mustn’t be overlooked.
When completing a degree at University level each student must meet specified ECTS (European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System) requirements every semester. These credit requirements are pan-European. While on an Erasmus year, students are given a designated amount of ECTS requirements that they must meet, often the equivalent of a year at their home university. For students, this often means focusing on their grades while they are exposed to a new style of teaching and learning. This can be daunting, as students are generally only familiar with the university system in Ireland.
“Going on an Erasmus year is often termed colloquially as a ‘fun year’ or a ‘year off’ when, in reality, there is a lot more to it than a long holiday.”
The University Observer spoke to two students, 4th year law and social justice student Colleen Conlon, and 5th year architecture student Kate Owens, who both went on Erasmus years during 2021/22. They offered a glimpse into what the academic differences were for these students, explaining what they enjoyed about getting the chance to experience two teaching cultures and how they adapted to these changes. These differences start with the logistical timetabling aspects of their courses. Academic years in different countries have different semester lengths.
Colleen studied at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands, and noticed immediate academic differences, noting that “a big difference is how the semester was broken down in Utrecht, I did two law classes in period one and two in period two instead of taking six which I would do in Ireland. It was so much easier as the workload was way less there than it is here.” Colleen also noted that the amount of time spent in class was different to the Irish system, despite completing the same number of credits: “In Utrecht, there was kind of a tutorial for every class, whereas I wouldn't necessarily have that in Ireland. Only for the big, long classes, I would have a tutorial or a seminar for as well.”
As an architecture student, Kate’s classes took a more practical form of studio work. Kate attended Lucerne University of Applied Arts and Sciences in Zürich, Switzerland. Switzerland is not officially part of the Erasmus + programme but partners with Erasmus + to allow student mobility to take place. She mentioned that her classes remained somewhat similar to the methods being taught at UCD, offering that “it was the same sort of structure as UCD has. We have studio work and were assigned to a group, and were then assigned a project. Every other day or so teachers would come in and discuss a project with us and we were given the chance to go on lots of field trips.”
“UCD Global makes students aware that there could be different teaching methods in place in partner universities.”
UCD Global International Mobility Officer, Stephanie Forde, commented on how UCD Global makes students aware that there could be different teaching methods in place in partner universities. Ms. Forde said, “we stress that this is not negative, but could be a very positive aspect of their exchange as they experience diverse teaching and learning formats.” This sense of diverse learning can be seen in Kate and Colleen’s reflections on how the academic differences in both Utrecht and Zürich affected their learning during the year. “I think I prefer the way the year is broken up in the Dutch system, four periods in a year rather than two big semesters and I like that there is a lot more continuous assessment in the Dutch system,” Colleen commented.
She also found the exam system to be less intimidating in the Netherlands, and with “law exams [in Ireland], you sit them in the RDS and they are very daunting, like heavy exams, whereas in the Netherlands, it seemed a lot less scary. It was nice that Utrecht gave the option to have in-person exams too even though the classes were in-person.” Kate was struck by the student-teacher relationship she encountered in Zürich, commenting that “I think there would be some interesting ideas to implement in UCD, it seems like their way of teaching or the ideas that they are trying to communicate are similar. It is just how they’re executed is slightly different and it’s kind of hard to pinpoint exactly where that difference is.” She continued, “it seems there was a little more involvement from the teachers and there was more of a peer relationship than a student-teacher relationship.”
Despite adapting to a new academic culture both students found that the difficulties they faced lay more in cultural and social issues than in academia. Colleen commented, “I think I found it pretty easy to go from one [university] to the other. We kind of cover the same content that I studied over in Utrecht, so I had that background already. With the smaller class size, it was a little bit harder to make friends, I guess because there are less people to mingle, but that was the only thing.” Kate found that studying in Switzerland brought a language barrier but was grateful that the University offered classes in English “Everything involved in the school wasn’t really a problem. It was more the social atmosphere and trying to learn how to get around the cities that was more challenging.”
“Encountering different methods of learning and assessment helps students to develop essential skills and perspectives which benefit their studies as they enter their final year here at UCD.”
UCD Global is the body that facilitates the exchange programme each year within UCD. They host pre-departure sessions with students to prepare them for exchange as well as connect each student with a school-specific Academic Exchange Advisor. Referring to the academic standards and practices in each partner university, Ms. Forde commented, “every year, we invite students who have returned from exchange programmes to complete a survey that covers all aspects of their time abroad including their academic experience. The vast majority of the feedback we receive is positive, and we find that students generally report that adapting to academic differences helps them to discover and develop their strengths. In particular, encountering different methods of learning and assessment helps students to develop essential skills and perspectives which benefit their studies as they enter their final year here at UCD.”
There is no doubt that different teaching methods and academic challenges can be difficult for students who are going abroad, particularly for the first time. These challenges may not always be negative and can be essential for the learning and growth, both personal and academic, that the Erasmus scheme promotes.