“At university”

On previous occasions, I’ve addressed Americans using, in various circumstances, the British term “university” rather than “college,” which Americans traditionally use even in reference about institutes of higher learning that indeed are universities. That is, someone who graduated from Pennsylvania State University would say he or she “went to college” there, or “when I was in college.” (To make matters even more complicated, this Penn Stater would, I reckon, refer to “my university” or “the university.”)

Recently, I’ve noticed a spate of Americans not saying “in college” but either “at university” or “in university” (which seems to be a Canadian or Australian favorite). Some examples:

State University of New York Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson: “When I was at university, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymph system.”

Sarah Karlan, a writer for Buzzfeed “Despite her family losing their home and business during the depression, [Edith] Windsor graduated from high school and would continue on to earn a degree from Temple University. It was at university where she would first fall in love with another woman.”

I’m not sure of Majd’s nationality but here’s a tweet of hers. (And by the way, Lady Gaga went to New York University.)

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And these tweets all emenated from a 200-mile raadius of New York:

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22 thoughts on ““At university”

  1. And will USAians thence move to “Uni” (as in “When I was at uni”) ?

    p.s. it’s *at* University, not “in” University … 🙂

    1. We shall see about “uni.” I haven’t seen it here yet but only time will tell. As to the “in/at” thing, look up “in university” (with quotes) and you may be surprised at what you find. A lot of Canadian and Australian, as I said, but as I recall (I just did the search an hour ago), a fair number of British and Irish as well.

      1. Never heard of anyone being “in university” in UK, it’s always “at university”. One might “go up to” Oxford or be ignominiously “sent down from” it.

      2. Indeed, just yesterday I posted on another blog that I “went up to university.”

        I’ve a feeling I read somewhere that “uni” is originally Australian and made its way into the UK through the Aussie soaps in the eighties and nineties. Wouldn’t have said it in my day. (I went up in 1970.)

      3. Canadian, and I would never think of saying anything other than ‘at university’. I don’t think ‘in’ would jar too much if someone else said it, though.

        ‘College’ is another story – it’s a different, and much lower-status, thing from university. U.S.-origin professors can sometimes inadvertently insult their Canadian students by using the wrong terminology. (I think you have to say ‘community college’ to get the same effect in the U.S.)

  2. ‘At uni’ is definitely an Australian thing, although it is now pretty common in the UK. ‘At varsity’ is (apparently) another British expression, although I’ve only ever heard it said by South Africans.

    1. Yes, “University” has too many syllables for an Aussie to bother saying. I was ‘at’ UQ.

  3. Aussie here, who was definitely “at” uni, never “in”. Maybe a younger generation say “in”? However I just did the suggested “in university” google search, and all the Australian examples on the first couple of pages have a noun after them – “living in university accommodation”, “.. in university sport”, a “certificate in university teaching”, “involvement by students in university governance”, “investment in university research”, etc.

    1. I found the search that gets the most relevant results is “was in university,” then specify “News.” Most of the hits appear to be Canadian, but there are some Aussie, including this from a golf course designer: “I designed an 18-hole putt-putt course while I was in university.” Also hits from people from Jamaica, Rwanda, Germany, and Japan.

  4. Reminds me of this Sir Humphrey quote… “British democracy recognises that you need a system to protect the important things of life, and keep them out of the hands of the barbarians. Things like the opera, Radio Three, the countryside, the law, the universities … both of them.”

    1. Which reminds me of the bit in Blackadder Goes Forth where Blackadder discovers a German spy: ” I asked if he’d been to one of the great universities, Oxford, Cambridge, or Hull… You failed to spot that only two of those are great Universities.” To which General Melchett (Stephen Fry) adds, “That’s right! Oxford’s a complete dump!”

      Fry went to Cambridge, Rowan Atkinson went to Oxford.

  5. There’s also the US use of “school” to include university. In British English “school” and “university” are mutually exclusive, except in the “School of Engineering” sense.

  6. I was at the University of Birmingham (77-80); a nearby pub later changed its name to The Old Varsity Tavern, which sounded rather strained and presumably had been thought up by a marketing executive. Varsity matches are held between Oxford and Cambridge but otherwise the word sounds archaic to British ears.

  7. It’s often “at varsity” in South Africa, which is extra-confusing because you can also be “at Varsity”–Varsity College, the redundantly named private institution with eight campuses throughout the country.

    Btw, Varsity College’s website has this header, punctuation [sic]:
    When you can’t come to us to learn. We’ll come to you to teach.

  8. Well I was going to say something about how “uni” seems to be the Brit thing now for “university,” but I see others beat me to it. I think the Brits are now changing expressions on purpose, to see how long it takes Americans to mimic them. Like the South Park episode where Chef has to keep changing his term for “home” because the white people keep appropriating it. He’s finally reduced to calling it “flippity floppity floop,” but is still thwarted because they appropriate that as well.

    1. “I think the Brits are now changing expressions on purpose, to see how long it takes Americans to mimic them.”

      Not out of spite though ….

      At the end of the day, the UK/England/Scotland/Wales/Ireland(s) can be swept by a single word or phrase in a day. Certainly it can pick up with bewildering speed.

      But the US – with it’s vastness – is a different kettle of fish. Some words and phrases can take years – if at all – to go coast to coast.

      Anyway, Americans can have their own back, using words like pavement, bumper and boot instead of sidewalk, fender and trunk. (Or at least Mythbusters do 🙂 )

  9. Yes, as a Canadian, I look back at the things I did when I was “in university” although I would say that I was “at Queen’s University” or “at the University of Alberta.” It really depends on whether I was referencing a specific university or the more general university experience.

  10. To me college in the U.K. is further education but not higher education. Going to uni was common when I lived in the U.K. since the late ‘90s before I trotted off to America in the early 2000s.

  11. Depending on the frequency, could it simply be that Americans using “at” or “in university” were going for college but thinking of their university, mentally switching up their wording on the fly and thus just accidentally left out the obligatory connecting “the”? “In the” or “at the” or “in/at Name Of university” are U.S. usage; leaving out the definite article is not (or heretofore at any rate). College is always used for the general institution, university must always be a specific one. Although university can be used as a general adjective in phrases like “a university education” or “the university experience,” etc.

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