(Going) “to university”

The “university” saga continues. Most recently, I looked at Americans talking about being “at university” or “in university” instead of the traditional “in college.” (I will note there was pushback against the idea of “in university” being a thing. See the comments to the post.)

Yesterday, I heard a new one (for me) on National Public Radio. The report was about Hollins University in Virginia, known until 1998 as Hollins College. The (American) chair of the Board of Trustees was quoted as saying, “People have a choice about where they go to university.”

That is not something Americans say. They say “go to college” in general or even in reference to a particular institution, whether it calls itself a college or university. Or, to be more precise, that is not something Americans say, apparently until now.

25 thoughts on “(Going) “to university”

  1. I think this is a conscious attempt to broaden the context beyond the scope of what is meant by “going to college”. I suspect “going to university” is meant to encompass both “going to college” and “going to grad school”.

    1. I think the differentiation is appropriate in the States where it appears that high school students have to obtain a bachelor’s degree before applying to study for a master’s degree and beyond. In Britain, their equivalent go directly to university and, rather than studying for a bachelor’s degree over 3 years, many will immediately enter a 4-year course to master’s. Most medical students graduate as junior doctors with only a bachelor degree after 5 years study following high school.

      1. Certainly not the case when I was at university in the early seventies. I took my A-levels in 1970 at my secondary school and my results were good enough that I got into Leeds to read physics. Technically is was a four-year course but most people if their A-levels were good enough entered at the second year. At the end of three years we got a BSc with honours, and if your degree was good enough you could do a masters or a PhD. That seemed to be standard across the university.

        I hear at American universities you “major” in a subject but the other subjects you study could be much more diverse. For my physics degree I had to also do two year of maths. And, during my first year, we had to do one other subject but choices were limited, I did a year of psychology, I can’t remember what the other choices were, but I don’t think it was more than about five or six,

  2. I’m sure this has been addressed before, but how do Americans distinguish between going to a university (i.e. a degree-awarding institution) and going to a college (a non-degree awarding institution)? In the UK, going to college and going to university mean rather different things.

    1. Colleges in the US do offer degrees, mostly at the undergraduate/baccalaureate level. Universities tend to encompass more degree programs, up to the doctoral level.

    2. Except, of course, going to somewhere like Imperial College, which is part of the University of London so I think you’d say “I went to university at Imperial College.” Or any Oxbridge college, for that matter.

      Then there were the polytechnics. Universities are allowed to award degrees, polytechnics were not, there was a central organisation that awarded the degrees. (My sister read civil engineering at Sunderland Polytechnic, now the University of Sunderland. And to read a subject is something that confuses Americans, judging by comments I saw on a Wikipedia talk page a few years ago.)

      I’m not sure how the American system works. If someone goes to college, do they get a degree at the end?

      1. The Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine (usually shortened to Imperial College London, or just Imperial) has been entirely independent of the University of London since 2007. It has awarded its own degrees for much longer than that. Although it has the word college in its title, students invariably refer to going to university at Imperial.

      2. “And to read a subject is something that confuses Americans…” And not a few Brits. I *suspect* that it may be the influence of Classics scholars in and on the early C19 university system, especially in England. Flicking through an older Greek/English dictionary (demotic / katharevousa rather than Homeric) a few years ago I found “study” translated as “διαβάζω” (diavazo) which also means “to read”. I think the only reason many Brits are familiar with the “reading {subject}” form is from University Challenge .

        Drifting even further off-topic; when I was PSO (penniless student oaf) at a Scottish uni. we “studied” our subjects, none of that Oxbridge “reading” nonsense. 🙂

  3. I wonder if the speaker’s use of that phrase “go to university” is specifically related to Hollins’ recent* transition from a college to a university. Perhaps they have all trained themselves to always be pushing the university concept?

    * Is 1998 recent? It seems like just yesterday to me, but my grasp on time is tenuous even on my best days.

  4. I think many Yanks are familiar with it from watching BBC on public television and reading British authors. So it feels like an acceptable alternative.

  5. As a (now former) American who attended a Canadian university in the 1970s, I adopted Canadianisms/Britishisms so as not to stand out. At least, not more than my generic U.S. accent caused me to stand out. So I adopted the article-less use of university and hospital, even though the construction sounded wrong to me for quite a while. If it’s being used increasingly in the U.S., I guess that’s another Britishism, like jab, that has crossed the pond.

  6. The Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine (usually shortened to Imperial College London, or just Imperial) has been entirely independent of the University of London since 2007. It has awarded its own degrees for much longer than that. Although it has the word college in its title, students invariably refer to going to university at Imperial.

    1. That I didn’t know.

      Across the road from Imperial is the Royal Albert Hall, home for the BBC Promenade concerts every summer. I used to attend these regularly in the seventies and eighties and after the concerts, the regulars used to go to a nearby pub. I can’t remember its real name but it was colloquially known as the ninety-nine. It was explained to me that the Imperial lecture theatre block had 98 numbered rooms so the pub was the 99th. Further, when an extension to the block was built, the room numbering started at 100.

    1. I think if someone told me that they were off to college, I’d assume a sixth form college or some other non-university college (unless they were going to Oxbridge).

    2. With 2.38 million students in higher education in the UK in 2018-19, I don’t think worries about elitism are that prevalent. I read law at the University of Birmingham and graduated in 1980. I would have said that I was “at university” back then, before the ubiquitous “at uni” took over.

  7. And, of course, Americans might call a college or a university “school.” It is entirely correct in American to ask, “Where did you go to school?” when querying someone about her/his college or university education. British people mean something much more restrictive when they use that word.

  8. Sometimes the terms were vertical or hierarchical…….
    The Oxbridge types ” went-up” to Oxford or Cambridge.
    If they were bad boys and broke some rules, then they may be “sent-down” or “rusticated”…..i.e., kicked out.

    1. Hence the famous line attributed to the Rev. William Spooner: “You will leave Oxford by the next town drain.” (I share a birthday with Spooner, but he was a lot older than me.)

  9. Related: it’s still very uncommon, but I’ve seen more than one young American use “uni” over the past couple of years.

  10. As a Canadian, I would “go to university” if it was a university and “go to college” if it was a college. I might say to someone, “Where do you go to school?” but I would never say that “I go to school at (university name)(college name)”. And I would call those curved things in the previous sentence “brackets” and never “parentheses”. So while I use a lot of Americanisms, there are some places where UK language still wins.

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