Life as a British Exchange Student in Australia
Many years ago, luck, fate and a bit of hard work landed me a place on a 12-month foreign exchange programme to the University of Queensland in Brisbane from the University of Sheffield, where I was studying for a degree in mathematics. I enjoyed my time in Australia so much that I ended up returning on a gap year after graduation, and eventually moved Down Under permanently.
If you’re considering studying abroad, particularly Australia, you’re probably wondering whether it will be very different to your home country. Here are some of the differences I found between student life in the two countries, from nightlife to course structure to what we got up to on a weekend!
The most obvious difference was the climate. Brisbane is much warmer than Sheffield, so there was no more sliding down icy hills to lectures. There was even a manmade beach in the city centre of Brisbane!
But it wasn’t just the temperature that differed: Brisbane’s wet season falls in summer, and as the holidays approached and the first tropical downpour began, the Aussies grabbed their body boards, raced outside onto the sports field and skidded across the wet grass on their stomachs!
The most interesting creatures you were likely to bump into in Sheffield were house spiders, squirrels and the odd passing sparrow. In Brisbane things were a bit more exciting. There you were treated to sparkly Christmas beetles zooming around, flying cockroaches, lizards and all sorts of big, colourful birds that would barge around the outdoor dining area hoping to fly off with your dinner. The oddest thing of all was seeing turkeys wandering down the street!
What we refer to as a halls of residence in the UK is called a college in Australia, and they’re just as common over there and quite similar. In both countries they’re usually big, multi-storey buildings with small, private rooms featuring a single bed, desk and wardrobe. And in my experience, both involve the glamorous, prison-like decor of exposed brickwork painted magnolia. Why bother plastering the walls just for students?!
Also, many (but not all) colleges in Australia were single sex or had religious affiliations, which I’ve never heard of in the UK. The college I stayed in also housed students from two different universities. Many people stayed in halls for their entire degree in Australia too, whereas in Sheffield you normally moved into a share house in your second year.
A big benefit at Ranmoor House, my (now demolished) halls in Sheffield, was the on-site bar. Union College in Brisbane didn’t have a bar, but it did have an on-site gym, sports oval, TV room with a giant screen and outdoor dining area, which more than made up for it. It also had a self-service salad and vegetable counter so you could treat yourself to more than the lump of over-cooked cauliflower that got slopped onto your plate by the Sheffield dinner ladies!
Foreign Exchange Students
I was one of many foreign exchange students at the University of Queensland, whereas I don’t remember meeting many in Sheffield. Union College was very multicultural, and we even attended a special dinner during our first week to meet all the other international students.
We made friends from all over the world that year, and everyone was in high spirits and wanted to make the most of their time in Australia. We had grown men bawling their eyes out when we all had to go back home at the end!
Sheffield has a large student population, so the nightlife was wide and varied. With hip-hop nights, back-street indie clubs, world-famous nightclubs and cheesy discos galore, you were spoiled for choice almost every night of the week. Sheffield also has one of the best student unions in the UK, with its own bar and club nights. They even organised free buses between the halls and student nights around the city.
The student nightlife scene in Brisbane was very different. While the city did have a clubbing scene, student nights were usually held in bars with dancefloors, and the union didn’t get involved at all. Australia definitely had the edge on pub nights though, which nearly always featured live music and nice outdoor areas.
Despite this, I’d actually say the nightlife in Oz was wilder! Instead of clubs, the emphasis was on college parties, which were absolutely legendary. All the colleges took it in turns to host events, so every couple of weeks or so you’d go to a different party at a different college, which was like going to house parties but outdoors and with more people.
These nearly always involved fancy dress, and cross-dressing was taken very seriously – legs were shaven and nails were painted! I’d often have a queue of boys outside my room waiting to have their makeup done and browse through my sparkly tops on a Friday night! There was no pretentiousness. It was all about being silly and having as much fun as possible.
Mini Ball & Recovery
Continuing with nightlife (I will get to the work eventually), both universities had pretty spectacular balls. But rather than stick to big formal events like Sheffield did, Union College liked to alternate their black-tie event with a “Mini-Ball”, which was, unsurprisingly, fancy dress.
But the main difference wasn’t the dress code, it was the bizarre ritual held the following day. In Sheffield, and probably the rest of the world, you’d spend the day after a student ball squeezed onto someone’s single bed with all your friends watching rubbish TV whilst nursing your hangover.
At UQ, an all-day event called “Recovery” took place, where you were picked up by a bus in the morning and taken to a field where giant containers of alcohol, a hosepipe and plastic sheeting awaited. The tradition was to get drunk, get wet and muddy, slide around on the plastic sheets and literally rip each other’s clothes off. While we did end the day squeezed onto someone’s single bed together feeling a bit delicate, it had a bit of a different vibe when the guys were all dressed as pink ballerinas.
Australia definitely has a bigger emphasis on sports than the UK does. While there was plenty of partying taking place, there was also a lot of sports events, from friendly football matches to formal rowing regattas between colleges. We had plenty of sporty friends too who weren’t really into the party scene.
Forget the rainproof trainers and towering high-heels we tottered around in on nights out in Sheffield; in Brisbane girls required two pairs of footwear only: rubber thongs (flip-flops) for the daytime and dressy “going-out” thongs for the evening. Lectures required nothing more than a t-shirt and a pair of board shorts, even for some of the lecturers.
Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was the booze, but the merest whiff of alcohol and the Aussies would be ripping off their clothes and streaking across the grass as if their life depended on it. The popular “nudie run” was a standard university tradition – like exams and lectures.
While the American students were usually happy to join in, us Brits tended to stand awkwardly at the sidelines, politely forcing a smile and hoping we weren’t expected to participate. Oh, and if a song called Eagle Rock came on during a night out, every guy in the room would instantly drop their trousers! I’m still not sure why.
A weekend adventure in Sheffield meant a tram ride to Meadowhall Shopping Centre or a pub lunch in the Peak District. But with Brisbane being only an hour away from the Gold Coast, it was easy to nip down to Surfer’s Paradise on the weekend to spend the day at a world-famous beach. And since some of our friends grew up there, we’d sometimes stay with their parents and have a party on a Saturday night.
Since Australia is so enormous, many of our friends were too far away from their family homes to pop back at weekends, plus many of us were on exchange. This meant we could organise longer trips during the holidays to explore the Queensland coastline. At Christmas we had our three-month summer holidays, so fellow Sheffield exchange student Liz and I went off on our first backpacking adventure, stopping off at our new friends’ houses along the way.
Study & Workload
It might be difficult to believe, but when we weren’t busy lying on beaches or cross-dressing or sliding around in the mud, we did actually have to go to lectures and do serious stuff like sit exams.
Most exchange students from other countries only had to pass the year, but for us Brits our results counted towards our overall degree mark, so we had to work that much harder. Here are some of the differences I found with studying Down Under.
In the UK we tend to study academic subjects like geography, history or English. In Australia, vocational subjects like engineering seem to be much more popular. If they do study an academic subject, it often has a broad title like “science”. My maths lectures in Brisbane often had less than 30 students in, compared to 100-200 in Sheffield! Most Australians looked really confused when I said I was doing a maths degree!
The atmosphere at UQ was very laid back, with lecturers sometimes sauntering in bare foot wearing shorts and t-shirts! Things were much more formal in Sheffield; most professors wore a shirt and tie and seemed to be much older. I once remember a student in Brisbane answering their phone during a lecture and casually walking out to take the call. That would never have been allowed to happen in Sheffield!
The grading system was very different in Australia. In the UK your results for each module were given as an exact percentage, where 70% upward was a 1st, 60%-69% was a 2:1 etc. UQ used a Grade Point Average (GPA) basis, and you were given a mark out of seven (with seven meaning you got at least 85%, six being 75%-84% etc). On our return the UK lecturers had to try and translate these into the British system.
Exam and Lecture Structure
I much preferred the structure for maths in Oz, and I got much higher marks than I could have in the UK. Over there we studied fewer subjects but with more content in each of them. So even though the total number of hours spent in lectures was the same each week as in Sheffield, the workload was much easier to balance.
In Sheffield I had 12 hours of lectures a week divided between six subjects each semester. So a total of 12 subjects and 12 exams a year. There was hardly any coursework, and when there was some you weren’t allowed to get help on it.
In Brisbane I also had 12 hours of lectures per week, but split over four subjects each semester instead. So eight subjects and eight exams per year, but with more course content per subject. There was also a lot more coursework, and you were allowed to get help from lecturers if you were stuck. For one subject in Oz I even got marks just for turning up to the tutorials – apparently the norm in America!
It was so much easier to balance four subjects and four exams per semester than six, which increased my marks no end. When my overall result was transferred into the UK system it was much higher than I would have got if I’d stayed at home, which counted for 40% of my final grade. This meant there was much less pressure in my final year as my average was already high.
My Thoughts on Studying Abroad
I can’t recommend studying abroad enough; my year in Brisbane was one of the best times of my life, and what led me to me finally moving to Australia long term. It’s a great chance to experience life in another country and build your confidence. Once you get started in your career it does become harder to spend time abroad, and looking back it was an amazing opportunity for me. So if you’re thinking of taking the plunge, I say go for it!