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My Experience Studying at University in the UK and in France

Updated on December 20, 2017

Ten years ago I graduated from university in England with a BA degree in Tourism Management aged 22. Two years ago, I decided it was time to study again, so quit my job in China and moved to France to do another BA degree in Languages and Translation. This was a tough decision that took me around a year to fully commit to. Moving back to Europe would not only be a big cost, but it also meant a long-term loss as I had no guarantee of finding a job, as well as that job being much lower paid, coupled with higher living costs than in China. There are several factors that led to my decision to study again:

I was starting to pretty much hate my job. It was well-paid with great school holidays, but teaching English was really not my thing. It was an experience, not a career. Every day I crossed the day off my calendar, counting down to the next pay day, bonus or day off. In the beginning it was a giggle with my colleagues; in the end, it was becoming my only consolation after a day of torture. Things seriously had to change.

In between my first degree and moving to China, I had already spent a total of three years working in France, and also one year in Spain. For a long time, I had wanted to study languages. There’s something really special about that high you get when you can navigate your way around in another language, or even better, when you help other people by interpreting for them. Over the years, I have sporadically worked in hotels, so interpreting has always indirectly been part of that job.

There had also been a few periods when I translated, freelance. They were pretty terrible translations. By then my French was very good but a sort of bizarre interlingualism had taken place and I struggled a lot. However, I got paid and I had enjoyed the overall experience. These days the translation industry is full of people like I was back then: people with an OK skill, zero professionalism, just giving it a good go; but not realising the long-term destructive impacts they were making by driving down prices and quality.

In order to make all my experiences mean something, hone my skills, and help me get into the translation industry properly this time I realised I really needed to study again. Sometimes you just have to do things the long way in order to get the best results. Simply saying you’ve lived abroad and can speak to a decent level isn’t really enough. Being able to write well in your own native language is also vastly important.

Studying in The UK

My first degree was all good fun. The first two years were kind of a blur of parties and part-time waitressing. The third year was spent abroad in France- the first few months as an Erasmus student, then the next nine months working in a hotel. My final year was the dissertation year. The key to success here is to pick a subject that interests you. That beast will become your baby, so plucking a subject out of thin air that you don’t care about then spending hours and hours (and hours…) in the library, as well as trawling through websites, journals and books researching, must be nightmarish if the material doesn’t whet your appetite.

I suppose it depends on the course, but I only had 12 hours of class per week. The rest of the time we had assignments for which we had to do a lot of extra research and reading, which of course takes up a lot of that free time. We also watched a lot of TV and cooked dinners with my housemates and other friends.

The price of studying in the UK has changed enormously since I was there. For me it was just over £1200 per year, which I didn’t have to pay coming from a single-parent, low-income family. For me it was free. I did however, still have to take out a student loan: I mostly used it to pay rent or buy tat that I didn’t need. In hindsight, as I had a part-time job, I probably could have survived without the loan for a couple of years at least, and it was own mismanagement of money that put me into even more debt. I still have around £25,000 of student debt to pay back.

In my first year, I failed two subjects and had to re-sit the exams. I then failed one of the re-sits. This was a nightmarish situation as it meant I had to repeat the first year- studying only one subject for the whole year. I still remember sitting in my tutor’s office with a heavy disappointment. However, it worked out eventually and I succeeded.

Studying in France

In France, my degree costs me around €400 a year. Yep. That’s HUNDRED, not THOUSAND. The teaching quality is great. Most of my teachers are young, motivated, enjoy their subject and are eager for us to learn. We have a crazy amount of homework, and classes are intense with around 20 hours of class per week. The classrooms themselves are, admittedly, pretty terrible: holes in the ceiling, wiring hanging out, cold in winter. But that’s just superficial. That piece of paper I will get at the end and the overall experience are why I’m doing it.

What I do like about studying in France is the exam system. If you fail an exam here, then it just means you have to get a higher grade on the next one to compensate and pass the course. For example, if I get a 9/20 (the pass mark is always 10/20) on one test, then on the next test (for the same teacher) I need an 11/20 to pass. I failed a couple of classes in my first year and second year, but as I had done really well in other classes, my overall grade for the year was enough to pass without having to do any re-sit exams.

The main reason I came to study in France, is of course for the language. I don’t see the point in studying languages, if the teaching language is your mother tongue, and you spend the rest of the time outside of class still speaking your mother tongue. As a future translator, this, quite simply, isn’t good enough. Every day I speak French: Around a coffee with my classmates, in class, with the teachers, and then at my part-time job in a hotel. It was recommended that the entry level language skills needed for international students is minimum B2 (this means having taken the official French DELF B2 exam, which I had done already). Now my level is higher and I’m thinking of taking the DALF C2 as soon as I graduate next summer.

Studying Abroad As A Mature Student

The main problem I have faced as a returning student is the negative attitude I have had from a surprising number of people: “It’s not in your 30s that you should be studying!”… “Isn’t it time you had a baby and got a real job?!”… “You can’t avoid settling down forever!” … “I’m only saying that because I care about you”… “you should use your money to buy a house instead!”… “You won’t find a boyfriend if you’re too clever!” …are just a few of the comments I’ve had thrown at me. *Deep Sigh*. Wait, we ARE in 2017, right???

Next, I have found my other problem is my own attitude. I love learning. I think everybody should have the chance to learn and study something that truly inspires them. There is so much out there to help us grow. There is just NO excuse for ignorance these days. My problem is pressure and competition that I put on myself. As a returning student with much more life experience than most of the other students, I feel this means I have to do better.

My other main issue is with certain teachers and the silliness that goes with some class projects. Recently, for example, we had to write a couple of essays in English class. I knew mine had to be the best. I was right. My grades were excellent and the teacher loved my writing. My final overall average, however, was disappointing. We had to do a group activity in class time, where we had to discuss each other’s essays and give feedback. Two people in my group hardly ever turned up and their essays were not very good. As I was the only native speaker, they felt intimidated and couldn’t give me much feedback. The group grade brought down my actual work grade. This is only one example of the silly things that, to me, just seemed like time-wasting activities that teachers need to fill their teaching hours.

This includes testing: I had always taught my English students that if you don’t know an answer, try anyway. Getting half a point is better than nothing. I have always stuck with this method. My first exam at French university was different: leaving an answer blank gave zero points, but getting an answer wrong gave MINUS ONE point. This meant that trying, even if I wasn’t sure, got me a lower grade than if I had not bothered.

Finally, the paperwork is quite horrendous in France. You just have to be as organized as possible and always ask questions to be sure you are getting it right. Those who work in admin, also seem to have an aversion to answering e-mails, or getting things done on time. Lots of deep breaths and patience needed here!

Overall, to conclude, studying abroad, despite the ups and downs, has been the best choice I could have made personally and I’m now looking forward to completing my final year and seeing which path it will take me down next.


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