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A term abroad Down Under: Here’s how studying at university in Australia compares to Bristol

Contrasting UoB with Sydney University

Whilst different in appearances, it’s in the Sydney suburb of Camperdown that you first feel the similarities between the University of Sydney (USYD) and the University of Bristol (UoB).

The famous Quadrangle Clocktower looms in its Red Sandstone glory, the iconic building of this university – their Wills Memorial Building. Across the grass sits the more modern Fisher Library, the Law Faculty and then “Eastern Avenue” a parade of lecture theatres that function as the main artery of the campus, littered with Christian Union ‘recruiters’ and pro-Palestine, anti-war, pro-dreadlock campaigners. The same ‘alt’ fashion clothes the Gen Z students and the same focus on change and development (as well as sustainability) permeates the posters.

Every window is dressed in USYDs own posters on reinventing the curriculum. Titled “unlearn…” they challenge the concepts study by placing a conversation-starting image alongside the tag. The one for “love” shows two men getting married, the “medicine” one a cannabis plant, and “threat” shows a human shaking the hand of a robot. But this is more than just a thought provoking exercise in poster design. The “unlearn” strategy is redesigning the curriculum of the university to modernise it, equip the students with the skills needed in the workplace and to make the university a more positive learning environment.

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The posters which form part of Sydney's 'Unlearn' strategy

Some 30-40 years ago at Sydney there was a week – normally around week 8 of term – when all the essays were due in at once. Realising the angst this caused, the university has since tried to make the assignments less stressful. Professors can give up to 3 days extension to students they know are struggling with out it being logged and the assignments themselves have changed.

For two units of mine – one part of the assignment is a discussion board. We post comments about readings we found interesting and reply to others ensuring that our contributions make up to 500 words. Instead of a large essay at the end, we had an early feedback assignment of 1000 words that eased us into the unit followed by a research project plan that takes the place of a large essay. All of these new assessment methods still contribute to the 4000 word expectation for an accredited unit, but are more palatable. We know that UoB too is trying to combat a serious problem regarding student wellbeing but have taken a different route. They focus instead on the support services and halls, an area USYD doesn’t look to.

Part of the change in the halls at UoB has included removing the semi-collegiate side of the university and making all halls purely residential. USYD still have their colleges, although college students don’t wear their colours with pride – graffitied signs on pavements calling to abolish them shows how USYD views them. Seen as the final sign of the elites hold on higher education, they are attacked for their pomp and circumstance. The issue the university wishes to address is “hazing” or the social practices of initiations and alcohol/drug abuse that take place in the colleges.

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It even rains in Sydney too (shock)

In an email painfully similar to ones that Bristol students have received frankly too many times over the past couple of years, USYD told students of a first year student who took their own life just weeks after joining- in this case because of the bullying he experienced through hazing. A friend from Canada tells me of his frat and how they are wary to avoid the term hazing at all costs showing it stretches beyond the US and Australia. Even in UoB there have been past stories of similar practices going on. We hear of these problems across all institutions, but it is noteworthy that USYD highlights and tries to address this as a key issue in the university.

Sydney, like Bristol, has struggled with an image of elitism. Wealthy students from the Americas and Asia line Eastern Avenue making Stussy, Supreme, and Moschino the three most common words on campus. In a city surveyed recently as more expensive than London and Milan, it takes a wealthy student to live there. My hall, a lower-end international hall, is $375 a week, or around £210, more than Churchill or Wills, but still far cheaper than the colleges here. How then, has Sydney sought to make itself appear more socially accessible and open to all?

Firstly, there are the social responsibilities that the university loves to remind us that they are aware of. Every event starts with a welcome to the land of the Gadigal people, and a thanks to the original landowners. Every university form asks if you identify as an Indigenous person or a Torres Strait Islander. USYD offers immense support to this group to strive for the equality that is so deficient in Australia and to ensure that it’s not just the “settlers” who have access to higher education. The curriculum of various subjects also take account of the responsibilities of a country with such a problematic past. Aboriginal religions are studied in great depth, and you can major in Aboriginal studies. Every Arts subject seeks to address Aboriginal culture whilst being careful to not undermine or appropriate it.

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Sydney University in the sun

And this goes back to the concept of “unlearn”. USYD doesn’t just want students to re-evaluate the subjects we study but to look again at society and the university itself. The building projects around campus show the want for a new face. They don’t want to be the university built by “settlers” for “settlers. Just like UoB, it wants to be more than just a place for posh people who’ve underachieved their way through life. Just like UoB, it’s trying to tackle the issues in the residences, and just like UoB it is trying to deal with the duality of being a university founded collegiately, for the wealthy but also being different to that, a place of progress and forward thinking.

It will be interesting in the future to witness how both the University of Sydney and the University of Bristol develop and whether they become more similar as they seek to overcome the problems faced by 100-150 year old institutions built on questionable money or diverge as their worlds dictate what they need to be.