When I first broke the news to my nearest and dearest that I was going to study in Australia for a year, it's fair to say that it raised a few eyebrows. The general response went something like this:
"Australia? Oh really? Well, what fun! How lovely and sunny! ... Oh, studying?"
I suspect that there are several explanations for this kind of reaction. Firstly, I should admit straight-off that I am not the kind of person you'd imagine particularly enjoying Australia: the land of sunshine, optimism and general outdoorsy-ness. I am scared of the sun, I don't like exercise, I don't even like prawns, and as a rule I don't really like people. Until I was 11 I counted my guinea pig and my dad as my best friends. For me, a wild evening involves looking smug after answering more than 10 questions on University Challenge - not dancing topless on a surfboard with a pack of blonde-tipped Shane Warne look-alikes, or whatever it is that those Australian students do.
Secondly, what is it that those Australian students do? Do they even exist? Isn't "Australian student" a contradiction? Surely people in Australia just go to church and sunbathe? Whilst there are many stereotypes pertaining to our racist, sexist, brash, kangaroo-fondling cousins across the Pacific, none of those stereotypes are remotely academic. Close your eyes and picture a famous Australian. Now open them. ... Open them! Chances are you'll have thought of Steve Irwin, Rolf Harris, both the Minogues and Toadie from Neighbours before considering Clive James or Germaine Greer. On the one hand, this might just be a symptom of England's intellectual superiority complex - we frequently joke about Americans being stupid too, after all. But the difference is that while we scoff at the US, we are simultaneously very much aware of its intellectual strengths: it boasts of a host of world-class universities, as well as hundreds of writers, philosophers and politicians whose names spring to mind at the drop of a hat. I don't think it's particularly controversial to say that, in terms of the world stage, Australia is significantly quieter in those fields. And considering this lack of international academic recognition, it's easy to see why it might be thought of as an odd place to go to hone one's intellectual skills.
Indeed, after an education in England, I have to admit that being a student in Australia is a bizarre experience. It's certainly stranger to study here than it would be to just live here and get a job. But this has less to do with the intellectual standard - which is similar to that of its English counterparts, generally speaking - and more to do with the lack of a clear-cut student culture.
Before embarking on my trip, I thought I had a fairly good grasp of what life as a Western student entailed. From what I understand of Americans, for example, via Fox News and devastatingly reliable sitcoms, 'car-ledge' life involves smoking weed, playing beer pong and saying things like "rad", "fur reel?" and "right on!" non-ironically. In England, most students seem to spend their three years marinating in a haze of procrastination occasionally punctuated by a tacky club night ("CARNAGE MATE!! CAAARNAGE") or something called an "exam". Whilst it goes without saying that these snapshots of "American" or "English" uni life are little more than shallow stereotypes, the fact that they exist at all indicates that we have a kind of idea about what 'student life' is, or what it should be. In Australia, this is an image that just doesn't exist. There are no sitcoms set in universities (like Fresh Meat), no student club nights, and, rather lamentably, no student drinks deals.
I think this difference probably stems from the fact that almost all Australians go to their hometown university. Unlike their American or English counterparts, Australian uni students tend to live with their parents. Obviously, as someone whose parents are currently on the other side of the world, I wouldn't say that this is necessarily a preferable option, but it certainly entails a completely different kind of university experience. Rather than an opportunity to continuously get drunk and have sex for three years (#noparents), Australians seem to view university as somewhere you go to get a degree. (I know! The rogues!) It's not that there isn't any kind of student social scene, but the ludicrous campus microcosm - with BNOCs, student-paper gossip columns and so on - doesn't exist here with quite the same intensity. Considering this, my friends' reaction to the idea of me studying in Australia appears rather misguided. In many ways, Australia is an better place to study - in the sense of focusing on academic work - because you don't get as easily distracted by social politics and living up to an image of university life.