Campus Voices: A Brief Insight Into Western Universities


Are the models and settings of universities similar? Do they have significant differences? As an international exchange student coming from Italy, I’ll try to give you an outline of the Western universities’ scene. But first, let’s have a quick look to the historical roots and the meaning of this word.

The term “university” derives from the Latin language, which originally referred to a group of people associated into one body, a company, a guild, a community, a society. Then, in the modern era, the meaning changed, and it indicated an institution of higher-education having the power to confer degrees.

The first university ever created was the University of Bologna in Italy in 1088 A.D. From that moment on, universities were gradually established all over the world – from the Sorbonne University in Paris to the University of Tokyo as well as from Oxford University to Harvard and Yale.

However, even if these institutions share common principles, such as conferring degrees after several years of studies or being associated institutions, there are significant differences in the educational systems and the university experience, especially between the European and American countries.

First, the concentration and location of universities are quite different. While the U.S colleges and campuses are scattered all over the country, in Europe most of the higher-education institutions are placed in the main cities, such as Paris, London, Berlin, Milan, Rome, Madrid. Thus, campuses are very rare in Europe. Students usually live in big cities or in suburbs by renting apartments. The university experience is strictly related with an urban lifestyle.

One of the reasons for this type of setting is the small amount of space available for new building areas all across the European cities (and territories) that constitute highly concentrated urban centers. Instead, U.S. territories are vast and extended. There is plenty of space to use and exploit for creating huge campuses provided with dormitories, apartments, buildings, neighborhoods and malls.

Furthermore, U.S colleges have plenty of student clubs and sport teams where everyone can find friends and communities who share their same passions. This leads one to build a powerful bond with his or her own college. That’s why the “university spirit” is felt more here than in Europe. In fact, European universities lack these particular aspects by favoring a more individualized student life.

However, the main dissimilarity is found in the universities’ system of education. Here, teaching is targeted at a more personal way. The classes usually constitute between 15-30 people. There are many individual projects and group presentations to prepare while students develop with their professor a strong bond.

In European institutions, classrooms are usually wider and crowded with around 100-150 people. Anonymity is a habit. You take your notes, attend the lesson, ask some questions to the professor (if you want), nothing else. There aren’t any projects or homework to do.

Nevertheless, the most interesting part is related to class attendance. Every student is usually free to go to their classes or not in the European countries, whereas in America most of the classes are a student’s duty. Why are Europeans allowed to skip their classes? Because, most of the European education is theory-based. You have to buy and read the required books, take some notes and take your single final exam, which could be written or oral.

Practice, instead, is the key-word for American higher-education. The aim of each class is to teach how to do and think correctly for a particular activity by creating a good mixture between pragmatism and theory. Also, laboratories, projects, and group presentations enhance the learning process and create a pleasing class environment with a strong community feeling.

The two models are quite different, but with pros and cons each. The European model focuses too much on the theoretical side of studying and lacks personal teaching, but on the bright side, it delves deep into the topics by peeling complex concepts and digging straight to their core.

American higher-education is more superficial and lacks the right tools to build a real self-reliable mind able to develop a critical and analytical view of complex situations and topics. However, it gives the chance to earn much more experience from practical assignments and internships, not to mention the enhancement of essential skills for working in a successful team.

Is there any best model of education? It’s hard to give a real answer, but one thing is assured: every culture shapes its own society following its values, which are ultimately placed at the base of education. Therefore, the true secret for getting the good side from both models is to travel and learn the best we can do during our student life – the true key for a round and complete understanding.

Gabriele Porrometo is an exchange student from Italy, spending the semester taking media courses at CMU. If you are interested in becoming part of our network, contact Arielle Hines at 

Views expressed in opinion and commentary articles do not necessarily reflect the views of management or employees of CMU Insider. 

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