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For example, can I refer to the main gate of a university as the school's main gate? Or say school begins in September instead of university begins in September (especially in informal speech)?

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In the US, at least, yes. –  guifa Sep 1 at 2:56
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@guifa Quite right: unadulterated Americans never say university begins; they only say college begins or school begins, and don’t distinguish primary, secondary, and tertiary schooling as others sometimes do. That’s because in American English, one goes to college, not to university — at least, not without saying going to the university for one in particular. Americans with some experience in the greater Anglosphere are no longer unadulterated in speech and writing, and so beg, borrow, and steal native-English expressions from insular and antipodean Englishes, amongst others. –  tchrist Sep 1 at 3:26
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Note, though, that many universities have one or more "schools" under them. Do not use "school" for a University, except in a broader or literary context. –  Kris Sep 1 at 4:50
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Notice, for instance, how UICU (a top public institution) refers to the "school year" admissions.illinois.edu/academics/calendars.html One can say that a given university is a "big school" or a "regional school", and one will talk about "school colors". It's perfectly natural for many if not most Americans. Here's another article that uses school both to refer to a university as a whole, and one of the subunits: espn.go.com/college-football/story/_/id/9201856 –  guifa Sep 1 at 5:03
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lol nicely put, @tchrist :) –  Joe Blow Sep 1 at 7:03

4 Answers 4

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Merriam-Webster defines university as:

a school that offers courses leading to a degree (such as a bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree) and where research is done

Therefore a university is a type of school and you can use the word school to refer to a university.

Here is an example of Vanderbilt University referring to their "school's main gate":

More than 1,800 new Vanderbilt University students, including about 1,600 first-year students and more than 200 transfer students, will march into the school’s main gate Sunday, Aug. 23, at 5 p.m. during Founders Walk, a tradition that formally welcomes new students to the Vanderbilt community.

It is also perfectly acceptable to say "school begins in September", although some people might prefer to say "classes begin in September".

Note: As mentioned in the comments, this answer only applies to American English.

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Note that both the examples are American and this does not apply to British English (and very likely not to other dialects as well). –  Andrew Leach Sep 1 at 6:32
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+1 to Andrew Leach. In England, school refers purely to ages 5-16 (or thereabout), college tends to only refer to the bridge between school and university (16-18). Also often referred to as "sixth form". Any educational institute with "courses leading to a degree" will be referred to only as University (or abbreviated as uni). But as also mentioned a university can have a "School of English" or such. –  Matt Fletcher Sep 1 at 12:16
    
As an addition to what Matt said some schools will educate up to 18 (ie have sixth form as well as part of them). Also some universities (mainly thinking Oxford and Cambridge) have colleges that are subunits of the university. –  Chris Sep 1 at 13:02
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And in Cambridge University at least you can study in a college in the university and in a school (department) of university - so all 3 at once:) But in general English that is going to University and definitely University terms –  Mark Sep 1 at 15:07

In American English, this usage is correct. In British English (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/school), school is explicitly mentioned as being for children. However, it can also be used to refer to a specific department of a university:

2 Any institution at which instruction is given in a particular discipline: a dancing school

2.1 North American INFORMAL another term for university. Harvard is certainly not a loafer’s school

2.2 department or faculty of a university concerned with a particular subject of study: the School of Medicine

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Both of these are educational institutions and they render service for students with different levels of skills. Hence, interchanging the words would not be appropriate.

Another mistake that I see is that you have used 'an' before a university which is incorrect. Please note that 'an' is used before words which start with vowel sounds, not with vowel letters. The word 'university' starts with the sound 'yu.' Hence, you need to use 'a' before a university. Couple of more examples are given below: a unique opportunity a universal truth a useful machine a useless fellow but an umbrella, an unavoidable situation, etc...

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School is used all the time in the US to refer to universities. You should mark your answer as being specific to UK/AU/NZ/CA/SA/IN/etc English –  guifa Sep 1 at 3:13
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@guifa And yet the accepted answer doesn't mark itself as being specific to US English either. –  starsplusplus Sep 1 at 13:58
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@starsplusplus True, but the question is a binary "Can I?" without dialect specified. The answer to that is, then, "yes". Stating "no" by itself implies that it is not possible — anywhere, anytime — and thus needs the localized disclaimer moreso than the "yes" answer. If the question were "Do I need an article before 'hospital' in 'My mother is in hospital and very ill?", the correct answer would be "no" because it's not a universal restriction, and a "yes" answer needs US/CA clarification. –  guifa Sep 1 at 14:19

Sometimes, I still catch myself to say "I am going to school", even though I am working as a teacher/researcher at the university.

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