Lessons from the Continent: Part 1

During my time living in Poland and my travels around Europe, I’ve had the opportunity to experience things being done in some very different ways to in the UK. Now, not everything I’ve experienced has necessarily been good, or even better than what I’m used to. But at this time as the UK attempts to turn its back on the remainder of Europe, I thought I would at least try and make the case for the things that we can learn from our continental cousins.

This is all from my personal experience, so of course take it with a pinch of salt and a dash of scepticism — there is no substitute for understanding things through first hand engagement, and hopefully this may inspire a few of you to do so yourselves. The focus will be on the places I’ve visited in the last year around Europe, so in chronological order: the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Poland, Austria and Slovakia. That’s not to say there aren’t things to envy in the rest of the continent — but I can’t honestly promote something I haven’t experienced.

So where to begin? Well firstly, I guess I’ll go with something that I imagine most of those who bother to read this will be interested in — student discount on public transport. Now in the UK, we have the good old 16–25 railcard. Which is nice, but also rather pricey. And also has a number of restrictions which make it less useful than it appears. As for general student discounts, they are few and far between when it comes to travelling around this sodden isle.

Things are somewhat different in Poland. There, being a student at a Polish institution entitles you to a 51% discount on public transport — and not just within the city that you study in. That’s something that I honestly would advocate heavily for in the UK, as a way of bringing living costs down to students. After all we are contributing £9000 a year to the exchequer, so why not give students some benefit back in addition to their degree? It’d be great for workforce flexibility, and make university a little bit more affordable which is always a good thing.

Of course such a scheme would likely be met with opposition from railway operators up and down the land. Which brings me onto the second point of learning for the UK — the benefits of nationalised rail. Having travelled on state-owned trains in the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy and Poland and not had a single bad experience bar some lateness in Italy (which Italian friends assure me is par for the course in all spheres of life) it’s something I’d sincerely recommend.

Not only are the trains of a much higher quality than those found in the UK, they also tend to be much cheaper in terms of tickets — largely due to the variety of offers put on. For example, a group of five of us travelled from Munich to Prague for £45 in total (so £9 each) thanks to a regional ticket created by Deutsche Bahn. While of course Poland is a much less expensive country than the UK, it’s shocking to think that a three hour journey on a brand new intercity train (with free hot drinks) costs £6 when booked a week in advance. Those are the benefits of railways being run with efficiency, rather than profit, as the primary aim.

The third thing I’d like to mention is how seriously Europeans take their language learning. As every Brit abroad has noted, pretty much everyone in Europe has some grasp of English — and that’s because of the premium placed upon it in the education system. From conversations with people of many different nationalities, there seems to be a common theme that English is treated as one of, if not the, most important subject during their time at school.

It’s almost embarrassing when you compare it to the UK, where the majority do two hours a week of French for a few years and remember nothing more complex than “Où est la discothèque?”. Admittedly yes, nearly everyone does speak English — but that’s as a response to our laziness, and as a nation we really ought to up our game. Giving the study of a language the same importance through education as Maths, English and the Sciences would be no bad thing in my opinion. Even if the average kid would hate it, down the line they’d see the benefit.

There are other things I could mention, but I’m aware I’ve rambled on rather a bit here so I’ll save them for another post (hence the Part 1 designation). I hope this has been at least a little bit enlightening to both Brits and non-Brits alike — to those of you reading this who’ve come to the UK from overseas, let me know if you can think of anything you’d want to see brought in back home (would be fun to hear your views) — and I’d thoroughly recommend travelling around Europe to experience these things yourselves!