Every year hundreds of Czech students start university in the UK, with some opting for schools in the capital. But what do they find when they arrive in London? And how does their university experience compare to what they might get at home? To discuss those issues and more, I caught up with two Czech students in the British capital, both of whom had attended Prague’s English College: Veronika Pehe, who is completing a PhD at the School of Slavonic Studies at University College London; and Kryštof Vosátka, who is doing a teacher training course at the same institution following a degree in English literature at Oxford. My first question to them both: What led you to study in the UK?
“I do love my language but in English there’s just a lot more to go on. And that kind of academic study in a world language seemed quite appealing to me.”
Veronika: “I have a much less academic explanation. I think I really just liked the idea of London as a teenager. I just wanted to come here. For me it was this kind of big city where everything happened.
“Then I arrived and I actually realised that I don’t like it that much. But I couldn’t really know that before I came here.”
Generally, have had you found being here as a student?
Veronika: “It’s kind of a tough place to be as a student. Because it’s incredibly expensive, of course. And even if you do all kinds of odd student jobs, as you do, you always have to think about how you’re spending your money.
“Also it’s just huge. So it’s a very different student experience to being at a campus university, for instance. I got to spend time at a campus university as part of an exchange later in my studies, during the PhD.
“There I realised that if your life revolves around a small campus everything’s there. Everything’s so easy.
“But if you’re in London you’re travelling long distances every day, all your friends live in different parts of town and it’s a bit more difficult to get together and to organise things. So in that sense it’s not really a student experience.”
And Kryštof how has studying in London and Oxford gone for you?
Kryštof: “On London, I’d pretty much agree with everything Veronika’s said there. London forces you to be a person before you’re a student.
“You can’t just be a student here in the way you can at a campus university and just lug your clothes down to the laundry in the basement every three weeks and lug it all back up again [laughs].
“You really have be more of a person and more self-sufficient in a town like this.
“That’s made things a lot easier. I think I’d feel really quite alienated by the immensity of this town if I came here on my own.”
Academically, what would you say the benefits have been of studying in the UK?
Veronika: “In a way it’s hard to compare, because I never went to university in the Czech Republic. But of course universities like UCL or Oxford just have a completely different reputation to places in the Czech Republic.
“I guess what I really appreciated was the emphasis on individual work here. Just being able at undergraduate level to write essays on topics that I came up with, being able to do little independent research projects – just being given a lot of intellectual independence.
“From what I gather from my friends who stayed in the Czech Republic, there’s a lot more emphasis there on learning a set, prescribed syllabus and then reproducing that.”
Kryštof: “For me it’s a lot more prosaic than that. I never did the kind of intellectual work that I came to do here in a language other than English.
“At most Czech schools in the subject of Czech you study mostly grammar, you look at sentences, you look at spelling, things like that, and you gradually come to small pieces of literature.
“I was thrown into the world of English education through literature mainly and realised that this was something that I loved and cared about very deeply.
“So for me it was more about I couldn’t do this specific thing that I realised I wanted to do elsewhere than in an English-speaking country. Or I didn’t think I could.”
You mentioned work Veronika. Do you work? Or do most Czech students have to work?
“I imagine that they do. Certainly many of those that I know or knew rather... because most Czech students that I knew in London came to do their BA at the same time as me and then they mostly went back to the Czech Republic.
“But certainly most of my friends had various odd jobs in bars and shops, as waiters and so on, or doing various other bits and pieces.
“Or another common scenario was that a lot of Czechs who came here to study were here only during term time. For them it was really study time. Very intense.
“They didn’t necessarily work but then they went back to the Czech Republic and worked back home over the summer or did various jobs there during the breaks.
“I think what emerged was this extremely strong, almost schizophrenic division between the UK as study and back home, Prague, the Czech Republic, as fun.”
Have you worked Kryštof?
Kryštof: “No. I haven’t had a job in the regular sense of the word. One reason for that is that during my undergraduate studies at Oxford it essentially wasn’t possible.
“Oxford explicitly prohibits you from working during term time. And during breaks you essentially recuperate.
“I would completely agree with what Veronika said just there. For many of my friends, and for myself for a large part of my degree, this country, the UK, was where I came to study.
“I got on the plane and got on the coach and came to this place where I went to the libraries and read books and then wrote things.
“And I went to Prague, where life was. A lot of people had it like that.”
Veronika: “I actually came here setting out to not do that. And in a way I succeeded, because when I moved here at the age of 19 I thought, OK, this is where I live now, it’s where my life is, and I’m not going to try to think about it in this kind of divided way. I’m going to try to build some kind of life for myself in London.
“But I found it quite hard. Especially because in the beginning of course your friendship circles are formed by people from your own country. I think that’s quite common.
“But then when all your friends are doing this thing where they just want to get out of London as quickly as possible and go back to Prague and not spend any time in the city, it’s quite difficult to then try to do that on your own.
“Obviously you can find other friends. But, yeah, given the kind of size of the city and that you don’t have this student experience, that’s kind of been one of the challenges, really.”
Do you have people from all around the world in your classes? If so, how have you found that experience?
Kryštof: “I do now. Not necessarily during my undergraduate years, because undergraduate degrees at Oxford are very much filled with British people, for one reason or another.
“But now during the teacher training – it’s quite an intensive one-year course – I do have classmates from the Philippines and from all over Europe, Canada, places like that.
“It’s been quite liberating, because you need to check your stereotypes. You need to think a bit harder about what you assume that people know or believe.”
Veronika: “I guess for me this was in no way surprising – and there were many. In fact, during my undergraduate degree about half of the people on my course were from places that were not the UK.
“But I went to international schools for most of my education, so in a way that wasn’t surprising. In a way it would have been more surprising if it had been the opposite.
“In fact now that I’m teaching myself, as part of my PhD, I’m quite surprised that for instance one of my courses at the History Department at UCL is actually full of British people. That doesn’t match my own experience.”
Is there anything that characterises the Czech approach to study, could you say?
Kryštof: “The type of Czech student who comes here to study is already a different type of student from the one who stays at home and goes to university. So I’m not sure if I could answer that question.”
Veronika: “I’m sure there must be features of the Czech school system that are kind of imprinted quite deeply in students which they then take to wherever they go to study and which are then challenged.
“Some of them probably are transformed. Some of them are integrated into the system here. But, yeah, it would be quite difficult for me to say.”
Kryštof: “But it seems to me that the kinds of Czech people who come here are sometimes astonished by the way that British people are trained in debating and arguing, even with quite a narrow base of knowledge to back it up, to justify it. They’re often very effective [laughs].
“But the Czech student, if there is such a thing as a typical one, often comes with quite a broad range of information. The learning curve is to learn how to deploy it – which doesn’t seem to be a problem for domestic students.”
Veronika: “This is of course a question of who these Czech students who are coming to the UK actually are and it’s a question of class really.”
Kryštof: “That’s right.”
Veronika: “If it’s not students from international schools it’s probably students from prestigious gymnaziums, high schools, in the Czech Republic that already have a good reputation.
“It’s basically the elite in that sense who are coming here. So it’s hard to say that they are in any sense representative of Czech students in general.”
What does the future hold for you guys?
Kryštof: “I mentioned that I finished my undergraduate degree in English literature and I’m now pursuing a teacher training at UCL in teaching literature at secondary level.
“I will in some guise continue teaching. It will probably be at secondary level. It might be in this country and then other countries. I might choose to teach elsewhere in Europe first.
“But I do eventually want to come back to Prague, or maybe Slovakia, to teach at secondary schools. And generally be involved in the translation and criticism of poetry especially, which is my deep love.”
Veronika: “I am about to submit my doctoral thesis and at the same time I’m applying for academic jobs. I would like to stay in academia, in a university environment, doing research and teaching.
“Where that’s going to take me is unclear at the point. The disadvantage of the academic job market is that you just have to be very mobile. So I’ll see where I get a position, if I do get one.”
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