Returning several months ago from a three-month debating tour of 25 British universities, I was struck by the general British student view of American undergraduate education as plainly inferior, modeled almost literally on "Animal House." This British perception stems in large part from the radical difference in purpose and structure between the two educational systems.

There are in the United Kingdom only 45 universities (and 29 lesser-regarded "polytechnics") for 60 million people, in contrast to more than 2,000 American colleges and universities for four times the population. Thus the average British university student is probably superior to the average American college student, but who knows what our student image abroad might be if, as in Britain, only our top 5 percent attended university?

The British often regard our elaborate grading system as pitiable evidence that we can't be motivated by anything less than Skinnerian GPAs and that we don't trust our own judgments of quality performance -- so we resort to a Byzantine numerical system. They snicker at our practice of glorifying professors' every thought with furious note-taking and of memorizing handouts to regurgitate days later. Our myriad intercollegiate and intramural sports programs, the instances of seven-figure "hardship case" salaries paid to erst-while college sophomores are treated as testimony that American sports overshadow academics.

This British interpretation stems from the structure of their system. Imagine, American collegiates, that tests and exams, midterms and finals, projects and reports are swept away. Instead of semesterly grades and GPAs, you face -- after three years of study -- six to 10 grueling three-hour exams a few days before graduation. Next time you are terrified at the thought of a single exam determining a semester's grade, ponder the prospect of letting three years ride on one sitting.

Instead of a regular system of classes, you may have a "tutor," who directs your reading assignments and evaluates your essays. But the essays are never graded; nor do they contribute to your final assessment. You never pull marathon "cram" sessions, for with the exception of your final exams, there is nothing to cram for.

Yet eighty percent of British university students graduate with "second-class" Honors" (and only 2 percent fail). The hard part is to gain entrance; once there, the attitude may be: "We've earned it." p

And usually they have. For the British student's generally high sense of responsibility and independence of mind doubtless arise from his intensive early specialization and the constant need to perform outstandingly well so as to survive in the system. School-leaving exams at the age of 11 "track" students into academic or technical secondary schools. "O" (Ordinary) exams at 16 further funnel students into scholastics or polytechnics. By "A" (Advanced) exams at 18, the student is taking only three subjects, almost always closely related. Sixty percent of students flunk O-level exams. Forty percent of the survivors fail A-level exams. Thus, by the time he enters university the student is ready for the single subject he will pursue for the next three years -- and meeting and enduring exams' Watershed Week is nothing new.

The British system may seem to us too harsh at the pre-university levels and too lenient later, but the students' conviction is that they have been instilled with a standard of excellence. They know that results, not effort, are rewarded. By separating the evaluative and teaching functions, the British assess students on performance alone. Students know nothing matters except what they write on the exams graded by outside evaluators. While this system appears cold and impersonal to us, it allows the teacher to teach his material, not "teach the test." It also encourages achievement rather than student-teacher grade games. British students are often incredulous when they learn of the significance American teachers attach to "showing effort" when they determine grades.

The highly centralized, rigidly hierarchical British system extends to university placement and financing, both handled by government agencies. You don't apply to universities directly, and almost every student receives a tuition grant and stipend. The financial support, along with students' higher sense of commitment to their work, reflects Britons' more respectful attitude toward the calling of "student." British student life is dominated by interest in shaping public policy on a wide range of issues, in contrast to our students' general uninterest in all public issues except those that affect us directly: grades, tuition hikes, the draft.

But just as the average American university is not Belushi's Faber College, the average British university is not Milton's Cambridge. And if the British student mean is a bit higher than ours, the fact remains that America extends higher education to seven times as many of our young. Already Britain has introduced regular testing into many of its schools and, as it follows America in trying to extend opportunity, it too will face more directly the difficulty of transcending mediocrity and of limited financing. As Britain abandons its traditional relegation of engineering and commerce to the lower-status polytechnics, a practice that has doubtless contributed to its current industrial crisis, its universities will need to provide a broader curricula for a more heterogeneous student body.

But Britain too serves as a model for us. The emphasis on learning rather than grades, on depth over dilettantism, on self-reliance rather than lecture-gobbling, on scholastics over sport and on the world extending from the classroom rather than the modules themselves strikes me as a healthier, more mature educational focus than our norm.

To what extent are these emphases compatible with a commitment to mass education and giving second chances? I pause when I reflect that had my parents not emigrated from Ireland, a late-bloomer like me would never have advanced beyone O-levels.