Studying at the University of Auckland: what’s different?

Simon Hird  / /  Geography  / /  University of Auckland  / /  NZ


I thought it would be a good idea to dedicate one blog post specifically to academics and the differences I have experienced between Auckland and Manchester. New Zealand and the UK definitely have many parallels and it didn’t take much time to adjust to a relatively similar style of life and study that they have here. But there are some distinct differences in how university works here compared to Manchester and the UK in general.

One of the most resounding differences you will experience here is the way degrees are set up. Like many universities outside of the UK (US, Canada, Australia etc.), undergraduate students enrolled on a degree program at the University of Auckland will usually not be solely enrolled into courses on their discipline, but have the flexibility to take a variety of different courses. Take a Geography degree, for example: students will be enrolled on a Bachelor of Science programme in which they may choose Geography as a major and another subject as a minor, based on the courses they wish to take and allowing them to tailor their degree to their interests. Whilst this does not directly affect us as exchange students (we are enrolled on Certificate of Proficiency for Exchange) it does change the class dynamics noticeably.

As a result most classes feel much more varied compared to those I have experienced back in Manchester. In the first two years of Geography at Manchester, despite their being a wide variety of optional Geography courses, the compulsory core modules we have, as well as course meetings at the start of semester, help to create a definitive year group setting where you quickly get to know or at least recognise everyone in the year. Here it is very different – with so many different options available with maybe only one or two core papers (the word modules here isn’t really a thing, people refer to modules as courses or papers) it means that two people graduating with a major in Geography may only have had a couple of classes together throughout their entire degree. This is obviously an extreme example and it doesn’t mean that there isn’t the opportunity to make friends with people on your course, as lots of people will end up taking similar courses due to the nature of different pathways in the subject – but it definitely creates a more independent setting.

On the other hand it does mean that you won’t stand out as new kid when you rock up halfway through the year as an exchange student from the UK. Most people won’t know everyone in the class anyway and people always seem keen to make new friends. The other benefit to the major system is that many of the people in your classes may not have taken as many Geography papers as you have, often putting you in quite a good position in class, which is definitely helpful when justifying a weekend trip away during semester…

The openness of choice here, compounded by the openness you may be granted by Manchester whilst studying abroad, means you have the chance to take a range of courses and perhaps a good opportunity to experiment with new things. For example last semester I took a 1st year politics module (Politics 107G: New Zealand Politics). This semester I have just come back from a postgrad fieldcourse studying Coral Reefs in the Maldives. The flexibility and opportunity for new things whilst studying here has been something I have really valued.

A guess another distinct difference is assessment. In a nutshell I would say assessment here is more frequent but less intense than my experiences at Manchester. With Geography at Manchester we may have one or two large pieces of coursework during semester followed by a big exam at the end of each course. However here it is not odd to have maybe 5 or 6 small pieces of coursework, mid-semester tests and then an exam at the end, where the exam may account for 50% or less of the total course assessment. The smaller pieces of coursework may be tutorial or lab exercises, essays, reports or presentations and will vary in size depending upon each course but in general are often shorter than the coursework you may be used to at Manchester. This will mean that during semester there does always seem to be something you need to do, so you may have a few deadlines each week which may take a bit of getting used to. But on the other hand it does mean that the workload is more spread out during the semester, meaning you equally won’t have periods where you have loads of deadlines at once and other times with no work at all. I guess both have their merits but having several smaller pieces of assessment does also give you more opportunity to bring up your grade if one assignment doesn’t go to plan.

As I have mainly taken courses in Science this year many of my classes have had labs, often coming with weekly lab assignments. As New Zealand has so much to offer to a Geographer a lot of these have also involved fieldwork that then feeds into our labs, meaning I have had a great deal of practical experience and in-field learning on my year abroad. I have only had two classes with tutorials whilst I have been here and both differed. The Geography tutorials I had were more like a class to reinforce lecture material, which then would split into groups for student discussions, and with maybe 30-40 students, they were much larger than the tutorials I had been used to in Manchester. However, the tutorials I had for my politics course were much smaller, with maybe 15 students regularly coming to the tutorials, which geared it up more for group discussions. My politics tutorials were also assessed every couple of weeks with a short answer question to answer related to the previous lectures.

Exams here are relatively similar to Manchester, generally comprising of short answer or essay questions and being around 2 hours. However, the need to reference in exams here is a lot less than Manchester. I think someone actually laughed when I asked in my Politics lecture if we should reference in the exam… that might have been because it was a first year course, but still, it feels a lot less strict than the UK. In terms of the Geography exams and essay exams in general the key arguments from a paper are useful to include. But there is a lot less emphasis on providing a proper name and date reference at the end of sentences; often a name mid-sentence at the beginning of a paragraph will suffice. On the other hand if you are used referencing in exams I would say keep it up as the lecturers seemed to appreciate my references in exams.

As an overarching statement I would say be prepared to expect a different field of focus within your subject when you study abroad and get ready to make the most of that. Obviously core subject courses will be on offer but each Geography department around the world will have a different assemblage of academics and hence different strengths. I have found from my experience here that there is definitely a strong focus on coastal and fluvial geomorphology on the physical geography side. I would say this is largely due to the dynamic nature of New Zealand’s rivers and coastline as well as the proximity to many island nations in the Pacific where many Auckland academics base their research. Indeed the most interesting courses I have taken have been taught by academics at the cutting edge of these disciplines. So as a piece of advice to anyone trying to choose where to study abroad, I would recommend having a look at the staff members within your department and seeing where their research interests lie. This, along with the courses on offer, should give you an idea of the sort of trajectory you can align yourself with whilst studying abroad and ensure you get the most out of the year.

Hope this helps!


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