What’s college? International confusion over academic and scholastic terminology

Have you ever discussed schools and universities with someone from another country or even institution, and gotten confused over terminology? Words like college, faculty, credit, … while generally sharing latin roots, have taken on different meanings around the world. In this blog post, I try to make sense of it all, using my experiences from Switzerland, France, Australia, US, and Canada, and what I’ve learned from elsewhere.

College: in the US, college is the bachelors part of university education (one ‘goes to college’ at an institution that may call itself a university) and a type of university that emphasises undergraduate education (i.e. Dartmouth College which is an Ivy League university); in many countries, college can also be the name of a secondary school (i.e. Elwood College, a high school in Melbourne); in France collège is middle school, i.e. the level of public education between primary school and high school (lycée) as well as the name of some private schools (Collège Saint-Joseph); in Switzerland, collège is the name of university prep schools in Fribourg and Valais, or refers to the buildings/campus of primary/secondary school (e.g. Collège du Martinet); in Australia college can refer to a cluster of university residence halls, perhaps semi-independent from the university (which itself takes inspiration from the UK tradition of residential teaching colleges at Oxford and Cambridge). And a college can be an administrative part of a university (synonym of Faculty) like the College of Natural Resources…

Course/class: A course to an American is single subject taught over a specified period (i.e. GEO101, Introduction to Geography), while to an Australian a course is the degree program one is enrolled in (Masters in International Development and Environmental Analysis). The American ‘course’ GEO101 could be called many things in other countries, like a paper (New Zealand), subject or unit (Australia), un enseignement (here in Lausanne).

Credit: is generally a kind of point representing the value of a course/class in a degree program related to time or effort (e.g. you need 90 credits to graduate). But in some Australian universities, ‘credit’ is a grade you can receive in a course (on the scale of Fail-Pass-Credit-Distinction-High Distinction); in that case they speak of ‘credit points’ for the first usage.

Dissertation/Thesis: In the US a dissertation refers to the research document that one writes for a doctorate, but in French, it is a type of essay one would write for instance in high school philosophy class. In the UK the usage of thesis and dissertation is inverted, in that a thesis is the document you write for the PhD and a dissertation is the final report you write for what Americans would call a Bachelors (Honours) thesis or Masters thesis. Here at Lausanne, the words for these research reports at the different levels are travail (de bachelor), mémoire (de master), and thèse (de doctorat). And of course, thesis (and thèse) also refers to a proposition one is defending in an essay…

Faculty: Again, multiple uses possible: the people teaching at a university as academic staff, as in ‘faculty tend to live in nearby towns’ (USA); an administrative division of a university, as in ‘the Faculty of Arts’ but see also the ‘College of Natural Resources’; the university itself, as in ‘je vais à la Fac’ (France).

Graduate/Post-graduate: Americans call graduate school the stage after college (one goes to grad school to get a masters or doctorate). In Australia, programs after the bachelors are instead called ‘post-graduate’, particularly professionally-oriented masters and graduate certificates.

Grade/Mark: Marking and grading are often used interchangeably (though perhaps the former is more British and the latter more American usage). But Australians make a useful distinction between the mark (i.e. 86 points out of 100) and the grade, which is more categorical (i.e. A, B, C or Pass-Credit-Distinction-High Distinction). How grade distributions are used is a whole other topic not for this blog.

Honors/Honours: Aside from awards an individual might get at the end of a year, this word refers to a type of grade used in university grading schemes in UK and sometimes in Australia (1st class Honours, 2nd class Honours, 3rd class Honours , Pass). In the British, Australia, South African system, Honours is also a year of study after the bachelors (reserved to good quality students) involving doing research and writing a thesis (ahem, dissertation). In the US, some bachelors students (with high grades) graduate with ‘honours’ and have the chance to do an independent study project (‘honors thesis’).

Paper: Of course, it is what you write or print on, and also a shorthand for an article published in a scientific journal, or a written piece of work that a student submits for a class (term paper, research paper, essay), but in New Zealand it is a course/class.

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