Alexandra Lyons of Cambridge University writes:

For starters, undergraduate education [UG] in the UK is a bit different than what you have probably seen in North America, where 4-year liberal arts degrees are common. In the UK, undergraduate students choose 1 subject to study at university, which they study intensively for 3 years.

In the UK, law is a direct-entry 3-year UG that admits high schoolers directly. Medicine is also direct-entry but > 3 years.

Buffy answered:

Note that a US undergraduate degree is very different from a UK degree. The latter is much more specialized. In UK it is assumed that the general education occurs before the university level.

But in the US, the degree is quite general. Students of, say pre-law also study things like history, philosophy, foreign language, etc. It isn't that different from a History major. The "major subject" in the US accounts for half (more or less) of the total credits required. Even a math major will study all those things in the US.

To wit, why does UK UG already specialize, but not the US?

  • 2
    That is a question of long history, tradition, and evolution of educational systems. 200+ years ago the systems were similar. Now neither is similar to that era.
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 22, 2019 at 3:59
  • Actually for other northamerican countries, it is also assumed general education happened before university. That also happens for the rest of America given that most latin countries are quite similar in educational models. USA is the weird one.
    – deags
    Nov 22, 2019 at 20:10
  • US high schools also have general education. You seem to either ignore that factor or assume it doesn't exist at that level.
    – vr518
    Mar 2 at 0:10
  • Related, possible duplicate: Why do American universities have so many general education courses?
    – cag51
    Mar 2 at 0:24
  • @VrindaRao The level of general education in most of the American schools is lower than in Europe, and the gap is considerable. Also, a lot of the American school students' time is spent for sports, extracurriculars, etc. As a result of this, an additional year in college is spent to partially cover this gap. Mar 5 at 3:38

1 Answer 1


Academia varies more than you think. Your question oversimplifies the issue.

To give a US perspective on the question, there are differences in values and capabilities.

In the US, universities value the breadth of skills their students posses. Graduates are expected to be able to teach themselves to excel in any field. Therefore education extends beyond a particular specialty. On the other hand, US high schools vary in capability; many are unable to provide students with basic skills everyone needs. In some cases universities try to fix this problem.

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