By Annika Weis
My time on exchange at City, University of London
Do I really need to explain why I chose London? I don’t think so. If you search ‘Time of your life’ in the dictionary, I’m sure ‘Life in London’ will be listed as one example. As the saying goes, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford” (Samuel Johnson). It’s true. I have to say one of my primary reasons for choosing London was London itself; living in London has been a dream of mine for ages. Initially I had planned to apply for Edinburgh, but when it turned out that Groningen entered into an agreement with City just in time for my exchange, I knew it was meant to be and I signed straight up. I crossed all my toes and fingers that the university would be awesome as well, and, although City does not rank as highly as Edinburgh, I did not get disappointed. In a nutshell, I would say you get the best of both worlds: the living experience and the academic excellence.
To get this out of the way, in the context of London there is one other word only: expensive. If you can barely get by in Groningen, living in London won’t be any fun. What we pay in Groningen per month in rent is in London due per week, depending on where you live and the accommodation. I lived in a small studio in Hoxton (Zone 1) with kitchen and en-suite bathroom, and had to swallow quite a few times at the cost. As accommodation was a lot more expensive than in Groningen, of course one could cut down on other spendings. Restaurant visits, leisure activities, shopping (if you can’t help it, at least wait for Black Friday!), you name it — all was very low on my list of priorities so as to make up for what I had to spend. Going clubbing will also be costlier in London as most bars and clubs require admission for entry, so your evening will already start on the pricey side before you had a drink. I can definitely recommend the Boat Ball which is organised by the Student Union and takes place at the beginning of the year, as it was absolutely worth every quid! There is nothing quite as magical as shipping down the Thames at night with all the sparkling lights of the skyscrapers in all their glory and the Tower Bridge being opened just so your boat can pass beneath it.
Of course, there are many activities that come at no cost at all. Especially in the time before the festivities you are able to enjoy many Christmas markets, Christmas lights being switched on, and other events, for free. If you are a fan of outdoor activities, you will be quite happy running or biking through one of the several parks, wandering along the streets or exploring the many parts of London through your camera lens. Being a student has its perks also in the form of student discounts which are available via UniDays and other providers, and in shops or restaurants it pays off to simply ask!
Don’t fear, your host university will introduce all there is to know about living and studying in London in the introduction sessions during Welcome Week, which are a must to attend! In the end, your exchange is what you make out of it: it will either be more on the fun side, or on the serious side, or – ideally – a balance of both. While I am serious about my studies, I obviously did not want to let this opportunity go to waste, and I did in fact do a lot more than what I can squeeze in in Groningen (this may in part have to do with the fact that the study period itself is longer, so exams will not haunt you quite as early).
Generally, City took exceptionally good care of us. The admin staff was very accommodating and quick to reply to email queries (which you will appreciate in matters regarding module choices, signatures, Learning Agreement...), and everyone introduced themselves during Welcome Week so I did feel like I would always have someone to go to. Particularly in terms of safety and security in London, they do take it very seriously to see to the wellbeing of the exchange students entrusted in their care and you will not feel left alone. The exchange office really does go to lengths to make sure you feel welcome and comfortable in your new home. They will tell you everything from the British learning style and their online learning environment (Moodle) to safety inside and outside of the campus, health precautions, and what to do in order to become a Londoner ASAP.
The lecturers were phenomenal and all experts in their fields; if you choose modules that have a practical application side, you might even find yourself taught by lecturers who are also judges and magistrates, which lends another dimension to the study experience if you also get to visit them in the court room. I did not meet one lecturer who was not kind or welcoming. City is a very modern and international university which shows not only in the student population but also its facilities and technological infrastructure. I especially loved how lenient they are with food and liquids in the library (where it’s warm too!), as it makes for a much more comfortable and convenient learning environment! Something I will sorely miss back in Groningen…
In the UK, you will have two kinds of assessments. Contrary to other systems, there is no continuous evaluation of your learning process. Instead, you only have one final assessment in the form of either an essay or (open book) examination at the end of the exchange period upon which your grade depends. On a voluntary basis, at City you have the chance to participate in formative assessments which are in the middle of the exchange period. These assessments are 1,500 word essays which you have two weeks for to complete, based on the subjects you studied in the modules so far, and they do not count towards your grade. You will gain experience in what is expected from you and receive feedback which helps if you want to do well in the real exam! Depending on how many you choose to do out of the four courses you have to take, it can be very busy and stressful. I did manage to do all four of them and in hindsight I am happy I made the effort. As exams are in January, you can either stay in London during the festivities or go home to your family, in which case you will have to study at home, and all of your materials have to be sorted out before you leave for home because you will not be able to access the library materials in person. This leads to a bit of stress in the final weeks when you actually want to enjoy the Christmas spirit, but with time management and organization it can be done.
Last but not least, four tips for choosing your ideal exchange destination in order of priority (because I struggled a lot when I had to decide and looking back, this is what I would now consider):
Based on my personal experience, I would suggest for you to choose somewhere you really want to go. Do not go for particular courses if you cannot also imagine living in the country. It will be hard to get out of bed in the morning if you don’t like your environment. However, even if your courses were not on par, you would still be able to enjoy a fantastic location. Another reason why not to choose according to the courses initially offered is that they may change last minute and you will have to find new courses. So, if your primary motivation was one particular course, that might turn out to be quite disappointing.
Take your budget into account; it is only worth spending a lot if you love where you are.
Ask students from previous years for advice on destinations and read their reports, but keep in mind that people may have very different perceptions of a university or country.
Look at the ranking of the university you fancy. There is a reason this is lowest on the list, and this is because it really should not be your main factor for decision-making. Rankings are incredibly subjective and a great ranking cannot mend feeling uncomfortable during your exchange.
Come to London early and get acquainted with the environment. London is a big city and it is crucial to know where you need to be and how long it takes to avoid being late. Remember that even travelling within Zone 1 can on average take up to an hour, especially if you want to (or need to) avoid the Tube.
Be thorough in your search for accommodation and try to get something close to campus – travelling an hour a day is annoying and adds up financially, too. I lived half an hour by foot from campus, which in London is close! During exams, I lived in an Airbnb for half of the time which was 3 minutes from campus, and the last couple of days at a friend’s place in Marylebone, from which I had to take either the Tube or bus.
Equip your phone with savvy apps. Do install ‘Citymapper’, if you are not aware of this app yet. Absolute life saver in a metropolis. Also, ‘Bus Times’ if you prefer taking the bus, and City even has its own app to navigate the campus, called ‘CityNav’ (which I did not find useful at all…).
Don’t bike. Biking on London’s big roads can be fatal. In fact, you will hardly see cyclists here without at least a helmet, flashlight and reflecting vest. Watching the few who dare bike here during rush hour is already frightening.
Don’t pack half your wardrobe for you will only truly know how you need to dress for your new lifestyle once you have been there for a while and, even in London during the winter term, if you walk a lot (or take the Tube) it gets warmer sooner than you think.
Don’t go here if you haven’t experienced London before or you don’t feel comfortable with metropoles. Don’t walk slowly, and don’t stand on the wrong side on escalators.
Don’t listen to the people who tell you it only rains in London. No, it doesn’t!