how the world sees america

Cambridge, Mass. vs. Cambridge, UK: Battle for the Brightest

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Frances Cairncross, the rector of Exeter College at Oxford University, sits in a 700-year-old chair. Oxford is old, she emphasizes. It's been around far longer than America as a whole, yet America's institutes of higher learning still manage to dominate, pulling the best students in the world to Cambridge, MA often instead of Cambridge, UK.

Consider this: Of the top ten universities in the world (here's Newsweek's rankings), eight of them are in the United States. Cambridge and Oxford are the other two. This staggering number is likely to last for a while, with rising powers like India and China "massifying higher education," as Cairncross says, but still exporting their best and brightest to the U.S. to study.

This is all good for America, says Cairncross. Talented youth from around the world study in America, make lasting bonds with citizens here, and develop "warm cuddly feelings" toward the country. Moreover, they are imbued with "a common way of seeing the world." So many global intellectuals pass through America's East Coast corridor that some level of consensus develops among them.

With this come downsides: Anger in foreign countries about the brain drain, especially in the medical and technical fields, and a sense that the American point of view the students are adopting is narrow-minded, or even exploitative.

Cairncross also described the pedagogy in U.S. liberal arts colleges as a bit "dilettante-ish" with students studying African Social History and Hindu theology in the same year. In Oxford, there is more focus at the undergraduate level on developing a core academic competency -- a capability to think through a methodology and then explore outward from there. I'll turn to some Oxford students to get their perspective shortly (as soon as they emerge from the library, as they're in annual exams).

But maybe it isn't Oxford marketing that will pull students away from America's universities. Obstacles like visa restrictions are making it tougher for students to get here. "Is it worth the hassle?" one British Asian student asked me earlier this week, echoing Afzal Essa of an earlier post. So can Oxford and Cambridge step in? Will the world's U.S.-trained elite one day fade away?

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Comments (66)

THEOPHILUS:

Good work done out there but i want to voice out this view of suggestion that universities in the developed countries should grant enough opportunities like scholarships to those of us in the developing and under-developed countries to further our studies:e.g. i want to further my education after obtaining a first degree but almost every school i have written to tells me there is no such package. If we say the world is now turning into a global village, then let's develop the art of helping each other to speeden up the rate of development in the world.it will be shocking to know that the very people we think do not qualify for the courses they have applied for due to their class of honors are the most brilliant ones.consider this carefully.(ayitheo5@yahoo.com)

DanL:

“KevinKY:

One more thought--I've read too many articles on the troubles of the unis in Europe to be tricked into thinking they are better than those in the US. For one, many nations in Europe are still running on this Utopian notion that they shouldn’t charge tuition, and that the government funding is SOMEHOW going to magically keep up infrastructure, attract top faculty, and lead to groundbreaking research. Look at the number of Nobel Prize winners from US schools versus those in Europe.

Point America.”

I am going to point out that there are 504 Nobel Prize laureates from European Countries vs 305 from the USA. That is what you’d expect given that there’s a similar ratio between populations. But from the UK, there are 114 laureates you look at it, but there are some things you just can’t ignore. Everyday items such as plastic, television and the Vacuum Cleaner, as well as the invention of the jet engine and the discovery of DNA, even the internet, are all among British technological achievements. If you want to talk about British influence in science and mathematics, we are certainly one of the world powers, probably 3rd or 4th after the USA, Germany and Japan.

If you really want to compare things this way, then look at individual universities: Cambridge has seen 82 Nobel Prize winners, more than Harvard, Princeton and Yale combined.

Also relevant to this discussion, the total assets for Oxford University stand at around £6 billion ($12 billion), whereas Cambridge has around £8 billion ($16 billion). One Cambridge College, Trinity, with only around 700 students has a net worth of almost £4 billion ($8 billion). Sure these figures are nothing compared to US universities but they still eclipse all other worldwide universities. In fact, on a per capita basis, many Oxbridge colleges are even richer than the US universities.

However, for example Trinity College; of their £4 billion, 70-80% is tied up in non-liquid assets (mostly property I suppose) so their effective wealth is something like £900 million, of which only a few % is built up from tuition fees whether from the government loans or from international students. They earn some ridiculous 8 digit figure each year just from renting out the various buildings they own in their vicinity in Cambridge, of which I am one of the unlucky clients. Many other colleges have a similar economic structure, and my view is that it results from being hundreds of years old with no big changes except for those that the government occasionally implements.

As for the government funding our tuition, no it is not some utopian dream. Many European countries (and others) all have either free healthcare or free education or both. I can’t understand why Americans don’t see the benefit of this. Sure, we have to pay more tax, so proportionally the government controls a larger part of our economies, but that doesn’t mean it’s communism.

Finally my personal viewpoint on this issue; as someone with Special Needs, the one-to-one tuition system at Cambridge is ideal for me, I simply can’t cope with learning stuff in lectures as in other universities. And I think there are no disadvantages whatsoever to having such a system, since everyone can get help with whatever they find difficult to understand, and everyone is pushed to their limits. From my perspective as a maths undergraduate, the knowledge we end up with after graduating is far greater than not only those graduates from other UK universities, but most universities around the world (the exception being a few in Eastern Europe and Russia). By half way through our second year, we already have covered everything in a full undergraduate course in the USA, but still we go on to complete a 4 year course. Some students from other countries and universities join the 4th year as it is kind of an extension, but mostly they struggle because the teaching is so different. It teaches you intuition alongside knowledge, which doesn’t happen anywhere else, and apparently, it is perfect preparation for research.

On the other hand, one of the main advantages I see in US universities is that people aren’t forced to specialise so early. The UK system suits best those who know their own strengths and weaknesses from a younger age, but not the vast majority who really have no idea what they want to do in life at 18 years old.

All in all, if I were a foreign prospective undergraduate student from China, India or anywhere else, putting aside the financial side of the argument, it’s clear I would choose between different countries based on the different education systems. I think the Oxbridge system is so much safer and friendly, that it appeals to me, and I think a lot of other people too. But the US system also has its charm in different areas. At the end of the day, the US has 5 times as many universities, 5 times as many students, so there will be around 5 times as many international students, and that’s how things have ended up. You can’t compare the big and the small, and the US is just going to keep getting bigger and bigger (in population). 120 years ago, we had the same population, in another 120 years it may be like comparing California to Hawaii.

Another stereotype is incorrect; there are many, many international students at Cambridge, the Chinese alone make up about 5% with over 1000 students. My year of 41 mathematicians at Trinity consists of people from 13 other countries such as Cyprus, Vietnam, Russia, Korea, Australia, Czech Republic, India and Palestine, only 22 of us are British, only 5 Chinese. Other subjects are a little less diverse though.

DJL:

“KevinKY:

One more thought--I've read too many articles on the troubles of the unis in Europe to be tricked into thinking they are better than those in the US. For one, many nations in Europe are still running on this Utopian notion that they shouldn’t charge tuition, and that the government funding is SOMEHOW going to magically keep up infrastructure, attract top faculty, and lead to groundbreaking research. Look at the number of Nobel Prize winners from US schools versus those in Europe.

Point America.”

I am going to point out that there are 504 Nobel Prize laureates from European Countries vs 305 from the USA. That is what you’d expect given that there’s a similar ratio between populations. But from the UK, there are 114 laureates you look at it, but there are some things you just can’t ignore. Everyday items such as plastic, television and the Vacuum Cleaner, as well as the invention of the jet engine and the discovery of DNA, even the internet, are all among British technological achievements. If you want to talk about British influence in science and mathematics, we are certainly one of the world powers, probably 3rd or 4th after the USA, Germany and Japan.

If you really want to compare things this way, then look at individual universities: Cambridge has seen 82 Nobel Prize winners, more than Harvard, Princeton and Yale combined.

Also relevant to this discussion, the total assets for Oxford University stand at around £6 billion ($12 billion), whereas Cambridge has around £8 billion ($16 billion). One Cambridge College, Trinity, with only around 700 students has a net worth of almost £4 billion ($8 billion). Sure these figures are nothing compared to US universities but they still eclipse all other worldwide universities. In fact, on a per capita basis, many Oxbridge colleges are even richer than the US universities.

However, for example Trinity College; of their £4 billion, 70-80% is tied up in non-liquid assets (mostly property I suppose) so their effective wealth is something like £900 million, of which only a few % is built up from tuition fees whether from the government loans or from international students. They earn some ridiculous 8 digit figure each year just from renting out the various buildings they own in their vicinity in Cambridge, of which I am one of the unlucky clients. Many other colleges have a similar economic structure, and my view is that it results from being hundreds of years old with no big changes except for those that the government occasionally implements.

As for the government funding our tuition, no it is not some utopian dream. Many European countries (and others) all have either free healthcare or free education or both. I can’t understand why Americans don’t see the benefit of this. Sure, we have to pay more tax, so proportionally the government controls a larger part of our economies, but that doesn’t mean it’s communism.

Finally my personal viewpoint on this issue; as someone with Special Needs, the one-to-one tuition system at Cambridge is ideal for me, I simply can’t cope with learning stuff in lectures as in other universities. And I think there are no disadvantages whatsoever to having such a system, since everyone can get help with whatever they find difficult to understand, and everyone is pushed to their limits. From my perspective as a maths undergraduate, the knowledge we end up with after graduating is far greater than not only those graduates from other UK universities, but most universities around the world (the exception being a few in Eastern Europe and Russia). By half way through our second year, we already have covered everything in a full undergraduate course in the USA, but still we go on to complete a 4 year course. Some students from other countries and universities join the 4th year as it is kind of an extension, but mostly they struggle because the teaching is so different. It teaches you intuition alongside knowledge, which doesn’t happen anywhere else, and apparently, it is perfect preparation for research.

On the other hand, one of the main advantages I see in US universities is that people aren’t forced to specialise so early. The UK system suits best those who know their own strengths and weaknesses from a younger age, but not the vast majority who really have no idea what they want to do in life at 18 years old.

All in all, if I were a foreign prospective undergraduate student from China, India or anywhere else, putting aside the financial side of the argument, it’s clear I would choose between different countries based on the different education systems. I think the Oxbridge system is so much safer and friendly, that it appeals to me, and I think a lot of other people too. But the US system also has its charm in different areas. At the end of the day, the US has 5 times as many universities, 5 times as many students, so there will be around 5 times as many international students, and that’s how things have ended up. You can’t compare the big and the small, and the US is just going to keep getting bigger and bigger (in population). 120 years ago, we had the same population, in another 120 years it may be like comparing California to Hawaii.

Another stereotype is incorrect; there are many, many international students at Cambridge, the Chinese alone make up about 5% with over 1000 students. My year of 41 mathematicians at Trinity consists of people from 13 other countries such as Cyprus, Vietnam, Russia, Korea, Australia, Czech Republic, India and Palestine, only 22 of us are British, only 5 Chinese. Other subjects are a little less diverse though.

Arun:

Oh, god, this myopic obsession with academic pedigree/caste is just so sickening. I work in silicon valley - some of my co-workers have degrees from stanford, some have degrees from IIT, some have degrees from Pachayappa's and some have no degree at all. When you look at the people who rise up the ladder ... it's from all over the place. There is no correlation with where they went to school. Which makes me think: this whole where-did-you-go-to-school is a self-fulfilling thing. Get over it people - it just doesn't matter.

guacamolelover:

During my undergraduate years at the University of Texas, I had a British roommate who was part of the first group of exchange students sent over to the States by her university.

The conditions placed upon her showed how very little the program heads understood American undergraduate programs. She was required to take only courses that related to her area of study, which makes sense in a British program. She was further required to study only what we call upper level and graduate level courses. (For those unfamiliar, upper level undergraduate courses are those that require at least two prior basic level classes in that topic. For example, before you can take a course on Death in Shakespeare’s Tragedies, you must first take a first level composition course and then a second level broad based literature course.)

Furthermore, Sarah, the Brit exchange biology student, was also required to take between 21 and 24 hours of classes in a semester. Oh, and whatever grade she earned would be docked a level upon her return.

By mid-terms, Sarah was flunking just about every course and in tears. She earned a spot in the exchange program because she was a top student. Her downfall had nothing to do with her ability, but everything to do with a lack of understanding of the American undergraduate program.

Upper level courses are generally taken only by those majoring or minoring in a subject. Although you will receive only 3 hours credit for a course, those 3 hours refer to the amount of weekly lecture time. It’s not unheard of to spend 15 to 20 hours in the lab a week for that single course. And to spend another untold number of hours in the library studying the lecture notes and 10 assigned books.

Since upper level courses demand so much time and effort, students rarely take more than 2 of them a semester, and often settle for only 1. The typical American semester load is 15 hours. 12 hours still makes you a full time student (which is what I took since I was also working to help pay for my tuition and board). 18 hours is the max allowed at many schools. So with only 1 or 2 upper level courses (3 to 6 hours), the other course hours would be spent on degree required liberal art classes like Latin, Roman history, linguistics, statistics, astronomy, etc.

One side note: I’m very, very thankful I had the opportunity that a broad based education provided. At 16, I was a science nerd. In Britain, I’m sure my O levels would have flowed into a science based A level course. My grammar and vocabulary scores were only passable. By the time I entered university, I was idealistically determined to be a missionary, but a practical one. So I was going to be an elementary school teacher. During my third year, I finally settled into my final course of study, literature and journalism (a double major). I’m now a national level business magazine editor. I don’t think I would have been able to bounce around in my studies in the U.K. system.

So is the U.S. or the U.K. system better? They’re too different to compare fairly. And as poor Sarah learned, contempt of one system for what the other has to offer is foolish.

JRLR:

What used to be called "brain drain" remains a most serious socio-political issue, particularly when brains are drained early, i.e. before having even been shaped and filled... It does matter very much who shapes and fills them. After a while, even the best clones tend to be unappealing.

Whenever I see those university rankings I am reminded of questions like the following: "Who is best, in your opinion: Is it Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi or Verdi? Is it Shakespeare or Molière? Plato or Hegel? Rembrandt or Dali? Is it Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci? Is it Sapho? Is it Basho?"

Does it really matter? Does it even make sense to ask?

Ever heard of "Erasmus"?

"ERASMUS (is) a European Community programme in the field of higher education.

"ERASMUS seeks to enhance the quality and reinforce the European dimension of higher education by encouraging transnational cooperation between universities, boosting European mobility and improving the transparency and full academic recognition of studies and qualifications throughout the Union.

"ERASMUS consists of many different activities; student and teacher exchanges, joint development of study programmes (Curriculum Development), international intensive programmes, thematic networks between departments and faculties across Europe, language courses (EILC), European credit transfer system (ECTS).

"ERASMUS action is targeted at higher education institutions and their students and staff in all 27 Member States of the European Union, the three countries of the European Economic Area (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway), and Turkey.

"Currently 2199 higher education institutions in 31 countries are participating in ERASMUS. Since the creation of ERASMUS in 1987, 1.2 million students have benefited of an ERASMUS study period abroad. The ERASMUS budget for the year 2004 is more than € 187.5 million.

"Overall responsibility for implementing ERASMUS lies with the European Commission (Directorate-General Education and Culture: Directorate B; Unit 4)"

Reference:

http://ec.europa.eu/education/programmes/llp/erasmus/erasmus_en.html

Rest assured, I am not on Erasmus's payroll...

It is only that I see such initiatives, in the field of higher education, as genuine human progress, in our time. Such an approach stands tall, over and above the obsession with determining WHO IS BEST (a very North American preoccupation indeed!). I cannot but believe it is most promising for generations to come.

There are so many ways to see the world and to live one's life. We can learn so much from one another, sharing in a climate of international cooperation.

Why not learn traveling, seeing the world and coming to know others? Why not spend a little time discovering what you yourself really consider of value, in life? Why not first become the person you yourself want to become, regardless of all other people's rankings?

Do you really care so much who is BEST?


Rajan Shastri:

US Vs UK - No comparison

It is not just the universities, it is the environment and opportunity. The opportunities for engineering/physics/chem/math students after graduations were and are, far more lucrative in the US than in the UK.

UK is a "tiny" country in comparison to the US, that has an eroding manufacturing base and is propped up primarily by tourism, financial services and Scotch.

The US is by far a superior land of opportunity. It is opportunities that the emmigrant seeks and they go where the opportunity lies.

Thak:

I am from South Asia. When I had offers of graduate fellowships for a PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Cambridge and the University of Maryland, College Park, about a decade ago, I chose Maryland. Indeed, contrary to the opinions here of those who are not in Engineering and Computer Sciences, when it comes to graduate studies, elite UK Universities are behind any top 20 US state schools (e.g., Berkeley, Illinois (UIUC), Purdue, Maryland, Georgia Institute of Technology, Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas(Austin))

mrdarcey:

Sorry, Salamon, but the numbers just don't bear that out.

While Newsweek's rankings always get flak (mostly deserved) for methodology, they aren't alone in attempting a global uni table. Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China has compiled global rankings since 2003 and has concluded the same. In last year's top 25, America was represented twenty times, the UK three and Japan twice. In the top 100, the figures remain similar. America has fifty-four of the spots, the UK eleven and Japan six (Tokyo, 19; Kyoto, 22; Osaka, 61; Tohoku, 76; Tokyo Institute of Technology, 89; and Nagoya, 98).

In the subsection measuring Engineering/Technology and Computer Sciences the numbers are similar. The US has twenty-one of the top 25 (including all of the top 15), Japan 2, The UK 1 and Canada 1. In the top 100 the US has fourty-eight unis, the UK 8 and Japan 7 (Tohoku, 17; Kyoto, 25; Tokyo Inst. Tech, 28; Osaka, 39; Tokyo and Kyushu in the 51-75 grouping and Hokkaido in the 77-106 group).

The rankings can be found here:
http://ed.sjtu.edu.cn/ranking.htm

Salamon:

I find the boasting here somewhat presumptious regarding ed systems at the post graduate level.

However great the likes of Harard, Oxford etc, the simple fact is that Japan has twice patents per million population, On thia scale the USA is third, after Switzerland, followed by Sweden and Finland.

Citatiion from New Scientist May 26-June 1, 2007 at page 29.

So Perhaps there are othe unversities which prepare student sas well as those of the USA, but the bias in the evaluation somehow misses the non-Anglo-Saxon institutions. Pity

Suzan Atroshi:

American's matchless and progressive education system attracts a large number of international students and scholars all over the world. Most Asian students prefer to come to the US than any other country.

Once graduated, they are right away offered jobs with extremely high wages. The US governmnet is smart enough to keep them in the state instead of going to work for some forign employers. Plus how would not accept those kind of job offers. You can never make that much in UK.

Amar C. Bakshi:

WKU187, nice point about the US network of smaller schools. What are your thoughts about Swati's article?

Swati Mylavarapu, Oxford, US Rhodes Scholar:

When Melissa Dell and I wrote the Crimson op-ed, “Oxford Blues,” (see comment below) back in February, neither of us foresaw the heated debates it would stir up. The article was primarily intended to target Harvard’s fellowships system. But it struck a different chord here across the pond. British national news networks picked our piece up and a debate raged, pitting Harvard against Oxford, and at a larger level, American against British higher education.

The last few months have given cause for reflection, and I can attempt to offer some constructive insights from the discussions that op-ed prompted. These draw on my personal experiences between Harvard undergraduate and Oxford postgraduate programs. I’m not speaking for anyone else here.

Differentiating between undergraduate and postgraduate programs at Oxford is important. Academic guidance is generally better for undergraduates, who enjoy an intensive college tutorial system that is student-focused and deservedly world-renown. Students meet regularly with top scholars for one-on-one instruction and feedback.

But postgraduates at Oxford do not necessarily enjoy the same. Among my peers, one-on-one instruction is far more common that tutorials. There is less coursework and more time for research for post-grads, but also less academic guidance. So Master’s and DPhil programs are generally most useful for students who enter knowing exactly what they want to study.

At the same time, I sense a real difference in financial and research resources at Oxford. Harvard is one extreme with its huge endowment and financial caches, so a direct comparison is perhaps unfair. But the funding challenges at Oxford are tangible in day-to-day student life. It is not uncommon for Oxford postgraduate students to finance their own research –- for students like me, whose work involves considerable data collection in other countries, this quickly becomes an expensive personal burden. The problem is bigger in some departments than others, particularly between social sciences versus science departments.

Another example is the inequality between colleges here. It’s a sore topic. There can be great variation in rent prices, meals and basic room facilities.
This points to a deeper underlying issue. Oxford’s decentralization, while it grants colleges and departments autonomy, can also translate into a confusing, often non-systematized experience for students. As a result, it’s hard to claim a single “Oxford experience.” Students in one department or college may have wonderful advisors and classes, while those in another may face poor instruction or funding dilemmas. Some postgraduate courses here are phenomenal. I have friends who enjoy weekly office hours with their professors, intensive courses with regular feedback and paid field placements. But I also know others who have had to hand in dissertations without feedback, or whose courses were cancelled entirely. To a certain extent, this variation is true of academic programs everywhere. But I would venture that it is more pronounced here. And as I found, there are few safety nets for students facing difficulties with their course or advisors.

Academic system aside, one of Oxford’s greatest assets is its student body. At the postgraduate level especially, international and intellectual diversity abound. Graduate seminars and extracurricular groups, like the famed Oxford Union, provide ample opportunity for us to learn from one another. The slower pace of academic life here, compared to the frenzy of Harvard College, provides time to cultivate these relationships and launch discussions. That has been perhaps the greatest reward of Oxford.

Amar C. Bakshi:

Two good friends of mine, Melissa Dell and Swati Mylavarapu, wrote the following op-ed back in February in the Harvard Crimson. It sparked a great deal of controversy over here. I'm pasting the article below. And then in a moment I'll post Swati's thoughts on the controversy three months down the line, which she just emailed to me.


----

Oxford Blues

To all juniors out there, think twice before attending the Rhodes scholarship information session. That make-up Science A section just might be a better use of your time. Take it from two veterans, the glitter and prestige of big name scholarships may be less appealing under closer inspection.

This admission may be shocking, since to many, being a “Rhodes scholar” foretells a future of success and celebrity. After all, William J. Clinton, Kris Kristofferson, and David H. Souter ’61 are just a few former Rhodes scholars who immediately come to mind. But for those of us who have spent time at Oxford on the renowned scholarship, the title bespeaks a frustrating
academic experience.

As enchanting as the university’s ancient spires may seem, Oxford’s outdated academic system is far less charming. The university’s trimester system means students are out of school more than in. In contrast to Harvard professors’ regular office hours, Oxford advisors spend more time avoiding emails than supervising students. Here, where D.Phil. students struggle to have supervisors read their dissertations before submission, poor supervision is the rule, not the exception.

If you’re entertaining pipe dreams of researching something you’re passionate about at Oxford, don’t expect the resources to help you do so. The ancient walls of the Bodleian Library house a less than inspiring collection. Last year, some departmental libraries had to cancel their LexisNexis subscriptions due to budget shortfalls. And if you have visions of
debates with famous Nobel Prize winners, expect instead to be taught in a lecture hall by an apathetic post-doc.

Faculty rosters at Oxford face high attrition, as top-notch professors such as Niall Ferguson leave for more lucrative posts in the United States. You will likely spend most of your time in touch with Harvard librarians to access materials not available at Oxford, and you will probably be asking your undergraduate advisor for research funding and advice. There are no breaks for Rhodes scholars; in Oxford, you’ll be a dime per dozen. If you’re a Harvard Rhodes, expect the H-bomb to blow up in your face. Your undergrad alma mater can stigmatize you in your department and Rhodes House alike.

Harry Potter may have been filmed at Oxford, but students at Hogwarts have it much better than the typical student here. With steeply climbing costs and the recent poor performance of the Rhodes endowment—which translates into a lower stipend—just living in one of the Oxford colleges might bust your budget.

Activities you might be engaging in include foraging for edible food and getting berated by customer service representatives, but never after five p.m., when everything—including coffee shops and pharmacies—closes. Don’t expect urban respite from Oxford. London is a two hour bus ride away.

So, given all of these frustrations, why did we decide to study at Oxford? Until we arrived, these issues weren’t even on our radar screen. Before the Rhodes interview, the focus was on winning the scholarship, not on evaluating if Oxford was the right place for us. While some Harvard fellowships tutors might advise on such issues, others do not. And even if the help received from Harvard or elsewhere enables you to win the scholarship, little advice will be available from the University after the night of selection. Harvard’s fellowship advising system is not designed to help those selected. Once you have added the 325th mark on Harvard’s scorecard of Rhodes scholars, don’t expect much more. Harvard leaves its biggest resource untapped: The hundreds of alumni who studied as Rhodes scholars and could easily advise scholarship recipients.

We have taken an exceptionally candid tone about our experiences at Oxford not because we are bitter but rather because these are things we wish we had known three years ago. As you consider pursuing fellowships and applying to Oxford, here are the questions we suggest asking. Do other universities offer the same program that you want to study at Oxford? If so, how do their faculty,library, and financial resources compare? Don’t forget finances; consider how much it would cost to live in the college you are interested in. Think about whether you mind forking out some extra personal resources or taking loans if your stipend won’t cover everything. And get advice from current scholars in residence; Oxford has changed a lot in the past fifty years. The experiences of your older professors are unlikely to bear much resemblance to what Oxford is like today.

Perhaps the larger question is, do you even want to be in an academic setting immediately after turning in that 150-page senior thesis? Our message to those newly minted or aspiring applicants is simple: Beware of the lure of the Rhodes title. Reconsider that year working for an non-governmental organization abroad or writing a novel. Do not apply for the Rhodes unless you are ready to study and live in Oxford.

Melissa L. Dell ’05 and Swati Mylavarapu ’05 are both Rhodes scholars at Oxford University.

Erik:

Sen,

No one is saying Oxbridge don't have a diverse international student body. I was quite close to an actual Italian principessa whose family had emigrated to England during WWII. My flatmates during my time up at Oxford included several Americans, a Canadian, a French lawyer, a Chinese computer scientist, a Korean UPenn grad who now works in Dubai, a first generation Palestian brit, a Dutch political scientist, a Rhodes Scholar from Barbados, an Israeli anarchist and the wierdest Chinese guy you could ever meet. But they were all postgraduates, excepting the last (he was in graduate housing because he was a pyromaniac whose father was a senior beauracrat, and his fees were entirely paid by the Chinese government). Oxford has made a significant attempt to expand its postgraduate offerings, particulaly MSt courses, in order to attract foreign students who pay greater fees and will be future donors. The Said Business School is the prima facie example of this. I do have to say, there are a great number of American graduate students in Oxford for any number of reasons, almost all paying through the nose, or having a scholarship do so.

But at the undergraduate level, diversity is all but nonexistant. During my last year, there was an article run in the Cherwell detailing how there were only 17 black undergraduates in the whole of the University. Unless you were the Crown Prince of Bhutan (not making that up; he proposed to an aquaintance after seeing her across the room at a black tie dinner. Only in Oxford.) there just wasn't a presence other than middle-class Brits whinging about top-up fees.

The system as it stands is an impediment to increasing the diversity of the University. There is too much baggage accumulated within the British class consciousness, and too often poor and minority students of great ability simply never apply because they are afraid and the University won't reach out to them. Privitisation would actually make strides towards alleviating that by providing the means for colleges to charge on a scaled system, and giving greater grants and bursaries where they are needed.

Furthermore, what is this nonsense about a British ban on Israeli students?

starks:

I have many friends who are in PhD programs at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, and Stanford as well as those at LSE and Oxford. In my view, there is are several factors that make the US, in my view, a system that trains people to be on the cutting edge in the production of knowledge. I would say that the undergraduate system at Oxford is perhaps more rigorous for non-natural sciences. The tutorial system is simply a more concentrated system than the system at elite research universities in the US. Still, for undergraduate educations, the top liberal arts colleges in the US (e.g. Swarthmore, Amherst, Williams) have similar systems and provide intensive educations comparable to that at Oxford. In the sciences, however, the opportunity to participate in cutting edge research centers in the US for even undergraduates at places such as MIT, Caltech, Stanford, and Berkeley make undergraduate science education on a different level entirely than Oxford, Cambridge or other non-US institutions. As a whole, undergraduate education is probably roughly comparable between elite US and elite UK schools. However, once we get to the graduate level, elite US universities are simply much more rigorous than elite UK universities. A PhD in the social sciences in the UK is at max a 4 year affair, often with little requisite course work and little methodological rigor. At elite US universities, 2 years of coursework and general exams precedes the prospectus defenses. This means that at fastest, US PhDs will graduate in 4 years and often much longer. But, in my experience, because of the differences in rigorous training, UK-trained scholars are not able to do similar analyses in the social sciences. This plays out in the academic job market in which US-trained American PhDs go to the UK if they can't find appropriate academic positions in the US. Very few UK-trained (even Oxford, LSE or Cambridge) PhDs are unable to obtain academic positions in the US.

WKU187:

It's widely accepted that the elite US institutions are the greatest in the world. International rankings bear this out. However, what many (even in the US) don't appreciate is the availability of smaller, "regional" schools in America that--while certainly not "Harvard--offer opportunities to students that would be left behind in virtually any other country.

For every Yale or Princeton student, there are thousands more who attend Northern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, South Alabama, etc. The quality of the schools vary, of course, but the point is this: these institutions provide a venue of higher education and opportunity to students who may have finished 55 out of graduating class of 200. That student can go to a respectable college, be exposed to the liberal arts, and get a degree.

In the US, we take this for granted. We shouldn't. Get out a map of the world, and ask yourself how many other countries can boast of a system such as this? You think these opportunities are present in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America?

I'm a graduate of Western Kentucky University, which is in a town of 64,000. This school has an internationally recognized journalism and broadcasting program--and quite possibly the best photojournalism program on the planet. I've seen thousands of students from small, county public schools in the region come to this place and better their lives.

Would that type of student have a chance anywhere else?

KevinKY:

One more thought--I've read too many articles on the troubles of the unis in Europe to be tricked into thinking they are better than those in the US. For one, many nations in Europe are still running on this Utopian notion that they shoudn't charge tuition, and that the government funding is SOMEHOW going to magically keep up infrastructure, attract top faculty, and lead to groundbreaking research. Look at the number of Nobel Prize winners from US schools versus those in Europe.

Point America.

Look at the number of patents issued based on US research versus those in Europe.

Again, America.

In Europe, there is a so far floundering effort underway where Continental education, political, and business leaders are trying to fund schools to the point where they can do the kinds of research that are done on an ordinary basis in the US. By this effort, Europe admits it lags behind.

KevinKY:

For anybody to say that no US university can compete with the elites in Britian is laughable at best. Are we to believe that MIT, Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Cal Tech, Princeton, University of Chicago, etc, etc, etc are inferior to grand old Oxford and Cambridge? What rubbish. However, this post does bring up something that troubles me greatly--the US must do EVERYTHING it can to attract more and more of the best from overseas. I've been abroad to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East in the past four years, and all I've talked to on the subject volunteer that the US higher ed system is easily the greatest in the world. But as Americans we can't assume that this will remain if we set up ridiculous obstacles that discourage them. If we make it hard enough for international students to come, they will go elsewhere.

mrdarcey:

Can't agree with you more. No American university can compete with the depth and individual attention of the Oxford education. Appreciate as well that your high school classmates are being treated as adolescents by their American universities.

Unfortunately, money lurks behind everything. I'm constantly sent warnings the tutorial system might have to be scrapped. That would be the end of any competition for top American unis.

Best of luck with prelims and beyond. And enjoy what summer you'll have after. There is no place in the world like Oxford in June.

Patrick:

As a grad student at LSE, working at Parliament, already having another post-graduate degree from the US, and undergraduate degree from a top 20 US university, I can say there are huge differences between the two higher education systems that make the US system dramatically better. The first off is the level of ecnomic support. The UK government can't change the fee structure, it would get killed politically by the aspirant middle class, so there is no chance in the next 5 years of the UK colleges economic situation improving. In the workforce however, I have noticed that the Oxbridge name carries far more weight than Ivy's in the US. If you went to either Oxford or Cambridge and apply for a job, 99% of the time you're considered the top applicant. Having worked with numerous graduates a parliament, this isn't neccesarily a good thing as many Oxbridge students went for the socioeconomic status it conveyed, the access to the network it gives you and were not neccesarily the most academic minded students. And finally, the post-graduate degree system in the UK does not reward orginality, and thus will continue to fall as more US schools approach the funding levels of the Ivy's and can fully fund their exploratory approach to graduate degree programs. The UK educational mindset is that you cannot do ground breaking work or have an originial thought until after you have all the degrees (Ph.d level). The goal of my UK program here has been to memorize more and more authours, theories, facts. This is in direct contrast with the US where I was constantly pushed to challenge arguements, professors, classmates, accepted wisdom and develop new ideas. By fully funding, highly motivated students to push boundries in all fields, the US higher-educational system will continue to rise as the UK system, whose lofty rankings are almost soley based on hundreds of years of tradition continue to fall.

Patrick:

As a grad student at LSE, working at Parliament, already having another post-graduate degree from the US, and undergraduate degree from a top 20 US university, I can say there are huge differences between the two higher education systems that make the US system dramatically better. The first off is the level of ecnomic support. The UK government can't change the fee structure, it would get killed politically by the aspirant middle class, so there is no chance in the next 5 years of the UK colleges economic situation improving. In the workforce however, I have noticed that the Oxbridge name carries far more weight than Ivy's in the US. If you went to either Oxford or Cambridge and apply for a job, 99% of the time you're considered the top applicant. Having worked with numerous graduates a parliament, this isn't neccesarily a good thing as many Oxbridge students went for the socioeconomic status it conveyed, the access to the network it gives you and were not neccesarily the most academic minded students. And finally, the post-graduate degree system in the UK does not reward orginality, and thus will continue to fall as more US schools approach the funding levels of the Ivy's and can fully fund their exploratory approach to graduate degree programs. The UK educational mindset is that you cannot do ground breaking work or have an originial thought until after you have all the degrees (Ph.d level). The goal of my UK program here has been to memorize more and more authours, theories, facts. This is in direct contrast with the US where I was constantly pushed to challenge arguements, professors, classmates, accepted wisdom and develop new ideas. By fully funding, highly motivated students to push boundries in all fields, the US higher-educational system will continue to rise as the UK system, whose lofty rankings are almost soley based on hundreds of years of tradition continue to fall.

DR:

Regarding the comparative value of undergraduate education, is anyone here speaking based upon personal college experience at a top (read: Ivy) American institution?

As someone who attended a top school in America and spent significant time studying at a top school in the UK, I found no difference in the academic rigor, the quality of students, or the overall analytic skills being taught. In college I spent the vast majority of my time in classes with under 20 students and most of my final two years working one-on-one (akin) with professors. Perhaps the one slight edge might be in the hours of work spent by British students, which might just slightly “favor” the UK, although as any professionals or students will agree number of hours does not equate to quality learning.

The one staggering difference was in the quality of life and resources – the American schools we so far ahead that it cannot even be considered a competition. Top American schools make thousands of dollars available to every college student for research, travel, and other academic expenses. That does not even start to touch the vast superiority in facilities, technology, and other areas that makes it more desirable to be an American student.

Factor that in with the low cost of American undergraduate education (someone incorrectly suggested that Harvard attracted undergraduates via scholarship, this is not the case, it gives financial aid in via a noncompetitive process) and the vast preference that the top American graduate schools have for their own, it seems irrational that someone would want to do their undergraduate or graduate study anywhere else.

Jennifer:

Oxford is worth the hassle.

I'm reading this during a revision break (because of those aforementioned exams) in the library of Lincoln College, which is adjacent to the Exeter College on Turl Street. I'm an American, in the first year of a four-year undergraduate degree. When I applied here, coming from a Montgomery County public school, I knew very well what I wanted to study. I also knew that if I had studied the same subject at an American university, I would have been forced to take classes utterly irrelevant to my subject, and which I had already suffered through in high school. And I felt that even at an Ivy League school, I would be a number. At Oxford, you can never be a number. My college has 280 undergrads, half the number of my graduating class. I know almost everyone. And when it comes to the academic side of things, an Oxford student is anything but a number.

Amar is quite right in that there is a focus on developing "core competency" in the subject before specialization can take place. This is our "exploratory period" - we find out what we really want to study within the not-so-narrow confines of our subjects. I study Spanish; so, during the first year, we study linguistics, to better comprehend the many aspects of language itself. We also read texts from different literary periods - Golden Age play, contemporary Latin American novel, nineteenth-century poetry, the ballad tradition - and translate countless documents into English or Spanish, and write original compositions in Spanish. In the next three years, we have choices, lots of choices - pretty much anything that you want to study, you can. The resources we have make that so much more possible.

And above all, there is nothing in the American system that is even comparable to working with tutors. The Oxford system forces you to be well-versed in the intricacies of your subject, not just to take a certain (quite low) number of classes that might not add up to a total competency. There is nowhere to hide - not during the year, when you have a number of tutors who see students in pairs or individually, and not at exam times, because these are Public Examinations. But the education that you get here makes it so very, very worth it. Oxford is very much worth the hassle.

mrdarcey:

Johnny,

The big reason Americans can't get funded for Oxford is that the departments and the University have no power over who gets funded. It's all figured out by some UK government official. As such, all funding is limited to british students only.

If you ever want to see someone with academic anxiety, find an Oxford finalist projected a first, who is revising for exams 12+ hours a day while simultaneously trying to figure out how to put their funding proposal and whether it will ever be accepted.

mrdarcey:

No one is saying Oxbridge don't have a diverse international student body. I was quite close to an actual Italian principessa whose family had emigrated to England during WWII. My flatmates during my time up at Oxford included several Americans, a Canadian, a French lawyer, a Chinese computer scientist, a Korean UPenn grad who now works in Dubai, a first generation Palestian brit, a Dutch political scientist, a Rhodes Scholar from Barbados, an Israeli anarchist and the wierdest Chinese guy you could ever meet. But they were all postgraduates, excepting the last (he was in graduate housing because he was a pyromaniac whose father was a senior beauracrat, and his fees were entirely paid by the Chinese government). Oxford has made a significant attempt to expand its postgraduate offerings, particulaly MSt courses, in order to attract foreign students who pay greater fees and will be future donors. The Said Business School is the prima facie example of this. I do have to say, there are a great number of American graduate students in Oxford for any number of reasons, almost all paying through the nose, or having a scholarship do so.

But at the undergraduate level, diversity is all but nonexistant. During my last year, there was an article run in the Cherwell detailing how there were only 17 black undergraduates in the whole of the University. Unless you were the Crown Prince of Bhutan (not making that up; Only in Oxford.), or an American junior paying ridiculous fees to enjoy a semester abroad approximating the Oxford experience, there just wasn't a presence other than middle-class Brits whinging about top-up fees.

The system as it stands is an impediment to increasing the diversity of the University. There is too much baggage accumulated within the British class consciousness, and too often poor and minority students of great ability simply never apply because they are afraid and the University won't reach out to them. Privitisation would actually make strides towards alleviating that by providing the means for colleges to charge on a scaled system, and giving greater grants and bursaries where they are needed.

I think you are also collapsing a great difference between American state universities and the fact that the UK federal government is responsible for the entirety of domestic funding for Oxbridge. First, very few state schools approach the sort of reputation, deserved or not, Oxbridge enjoys. Like it or not, ask most people for the 5 best universities in the world, and you'll most often get the list Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge. Oxbridge lives off of that, and relies on it to attract foreign students who will pay more. Harvard and Yale use it to attract students to whom they give fellowships. That's the difference a $60 billon (or whatever the ridiculous number) Harvard endowment gives you.

Second, American state universities charge quite a bit more to out of state students (an exact analogy to Oxbridge's current international graduate schemes.). But there are far more out of state students at most of those universities than there are international students at Oxford.

Lastly, GRE scores are not the be all and end all of graduate applications. Its down to the individual departments and whether they feel the students have a fit and research potential. I've learned the hard way that people get turned down all the time with quite weighty scores. Competition is fierce and you don't know what the other candidates were like.

As an aside, what is this nonsense about a British ban on Israeli students?

Johnny:

One serious problem that Oxford has in terms of attracting American graduate students is the lack of financial aid. If you attend a comparable American graduate school (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc.), you're going to get full financial aid period. But that isn't true for Oxford- if you don't win one of the fellowships (Marshall, Rhodes), you aren't going to get much funding if any from Oxford. The reason, of course, is that Oxford is a public university and relatively very poorly funded compared to leading American graduate institutions.

Johnny:

One serious problem that Oxford has in terms of attracting American graduate students is the lack of financial aid. If you attend a comparable American graduate school (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc.), you're going to get full financial aid period. But that isn't true for Oxford- if you don't win one of the fellowships (Marshall, Rhodes), you aren't going to get much funding if any from Oxford. The reason, of course, is that Oxford is a public university and relatively very poorly funded compared to leading American graduate institutions.

chris:

Is it really such a wonder that the United States, a place inhabited by 300 million people, has a larger number of great universities than a medium-sized country, the U.K., with its 60m?

Amar C. Bakshi:

MrDarcey, Ah I see! These communities do seem quite tight. Sen, my parents went to Stony Brook.
Now the caste system seems to be over for South Asians in the Ivy's, don't you think? Also, Erik, a UK grad might be responding re: privatization. We're communicating via email now but I posed your question on state schools to him.

sen:

What is all these nonsense about lack of privatization stopping UK universities from attracting foreign students?

State universities in the US have little trouble getting good Indian and Chinese grad students.

Sen:

Middle class Indian students will not be attending courses at Oxford or Cambridge, England anytime soon.

However this was too some extent true in many Ivy league colleges in the 70's and 80's. Most of us could not get in there. I think, Ashoke Sen (fellow Kanpur graduate but no relation), an FRS physicist from India, was refused an assistantship at Princeton in spite of a 99 percentile in GRE. The rumour was that a caste system was in place.

So we went to the Big 10 and the Pac 10; To Duke, Maryland and Stony Brook.

mrdarcey:

absolutely not. Got in through the Oxford application system, and paid my own way. Though that was just a bit of jealousy at the size of their grants, scholarship groups tended to congregate together.

Amar C. Bakshi:

MrDarcey, were you a Marshall?

mrdarcey:

Amar,

Rhodes scholars have nothing on Marshall scholars. We used to joke that they wouldn't speak with anyone because they were too busy sitting around at night plotting which Cabinet position each would eventually have.

mrdarcey:

I think it far more likely Oxbridge will fall behind similar US universities, at least in terms of the researchers, academics and professionals it produces.

The UK reluctance to embrace privatisation, particularly at Oxbridge means that they have little cash on hand. When I was at Mansfield, Oxford, I was president of the MCR (graduate student body), and had to sit in on several bursary meetings regarding housing issues for graduates and undergraduates. As far as I can remember, the stats we were given said something like Oxford colleges were losing in excess of 800 pounds a year, per student, for housing alone. Mind you, the very poor colleges which are given compensatory funds from the richer skewed that statistic downward. When you couple that with the low salaries dons receive compared to their American counterparts, combined with their massive tutorial responsibilities and the cost of living in Oxford, I suspect that it is far more than students headed to the States.

Simply put, fundraising and alumni outreach are in their infancy at Oxbridge, and they haven't quite gotten the hang of doing it just yet. If they figure it out, and can get some level of private tuition fees, perhaps the University will not have to go through such drastic measures as limiting or getting rid of tutorials. But the UK doesn't seem to get that because a university says it costs $40, 000.00 a year, doesn't mean that all students pay that; that by charging that much or raising funds you have more funds available for financial aid. The idea that Prince Harry would pay the same to go to uni as a Scotish canal worker's son, is repulsive to me. So my own feeling is they've lost the baby with the bathwater because of the idea that redistribution of funds for students has to happen through the government. If Oxbridge is allowed to go private, and can begin raising fees and funds, I think they will do a far better job of attracting a broader range of students, both home-based and international. If they don't, its no wonder students and graduates will come to American universities.

I do remember something of a story about the University being up in arms after a spot offered to study medicine at Magdalin, Oxford was turned down by the girl in favor of a scholarship from Harvard.

I also agree with the rector regarding the difference in undergraduate degrees. American universities simply can't compare in what they expect from students or offer in terms of individual access to experts. Unfortunately that says nothing about either the University's postgraduate programs, or the future quality of Oxbridge undergraduate degrees if the universities continue to struggle economically.

BigB:

As one who attended graduate school in both Cambridges, the difference in the quality of education is far greater than rankings suggest or is commonly realized. This difference will only increase given the systematic underfunding of the British academy.

The resources available at elite American universities are vastly superior to Oxbridge. It's not even close. I would bet that the operating budget of Cambridge's Cavendish laboratory is less than Harvard's Department of History.

sen:

San Diego. Few of us went back.

We did not bother to check (and many did not know) how many l's are in Balliol. Financial reasons triumphed over everything else. Who cares whether you have a less "dilettante-ish" course in Oxford (or Cambridge) when I do not have the means to study there. This is one of most glaring disparities in the two worlds.

Another disparity comes after graduation. I could get a job here. I do not know about the job prospects of Indians in the UK after graduating from Oxford or Cambridge. Chances are these Indian students are already coming from wealthy well-connected families and would have no problem getting a job.

The average Indian student (usually from a middle class family) have enjoyed excellent prospects of getting jobs in the US over the the last 30 years.

Amar C. Bakshi:

Sen,

Where are you working now?

Amar

sen:

I am an IIT Kanpur Garduate. In the 70's and 80's we did not even consider Oxford or Cambridge for financial reasons. Most of the grad students in the US were dependent on a stipend (Research or Teaching assistantship) that we would not get at Oxford or Cambridge.

Amar C. Bakshi:

Delighted to have such thoughtful, informative comments. Thank you.

Geoffrey Henny's post is quite interesting, given is background - and the idea of striving before one's feet are firmly in place is an interesting one. I have an image of Americans constantly falling forward, as you describe it. Elizabeth, very fair point about the ratings, I'll qualify that link.

Flyonthewall, I loved your post. Thank you for it. I would like to contrast UK graduate school experiences as well. And I'm perhaps in the midst of that exploration you say young Americans go through. I'll certainly talk to students who aren't at Oxbridge in the coming days as I move from London down to Brighton.

Bryan, interesting point. Let's try to look into the numbers on that. My family members graduated from IITs and IIMs a generation ago and all came to America, but the rate isn't nearly the same, or at least not in all the same areas.

RJ, my graduation ceremony was rained out more or less, so I didn't hear much! But your point is well taken. One point that's been interesting to hear over here is from a bunch of American Rhodes Scholars (who have a peculiar reputation here for being rather presumptuous) who say that money in Oxbridge is used rather differently than in U.S. institutions, being more focused on enabling faculty than running the nuts and bolts of the institution. This point is rather different than yours, but I've asked Swati Mylvarapu, who wrote a contentious article about Oxford called Oxford Blues, published in the Harvard Crimson (http://www.btinternet.com/~akme/Stimes09.html). Take a look and if you have any questions for her, post away. I think she'll be on tonight (UK time) or tomorrow to write a bit.

Thanks again for all your comments. They've been fascinating to read and so informative. Looking forward to building upon what's been brought up here in subsequent posts.

plh:

I have to agree with many of the posters here: The USA is on a curving trajectory, as opposed to an upward one, and there is a decreasing reason why foreign students should come here. Many US universities now sell their wares abroad through branch schools (think MIT in Singappore), or through joint progams (think Syracuse in Korea). Former Phd students now define entire universities at some of the better Asian schools, and US industry has helped build strong, innovative economies in Asia. So why come here? Meanwhile, the US education system is turning into a one of have and have-nots, while we are increasingly over-whelmed with immigrants who possess few relevant skills. While the US might still have some good schools, the other 90% of the iceburg is what we should be concerned about.

RJ:

I agree with those who mentioned that the cause of this competitive advantage is the difference in the size of the institution's endowments. Private Universities and Colleges are investing the vast majority of their cash while simultaneously increasing the cost of tuition by about 6% annually. If anyone's ever sat through a Harvard graduation ceremony they know that what is really celebrated is the amount of money they made that year, not the accomplishment of their graduates.

Education is a business and money talks. Loudly. To everyone.

Bryan :

The assertion that the rising powers like India and China are still sending their brightest to the US is wrong. It might have be correct a few years ago, but not anymore.

Reading from Indian newspapers I understand the cream from the premier institutions like IITs and IIMs are now staying back. Only the average students are crossing the shores for better career prospects. I understand this is the reason why we don't find many Indians doing PhDs in US nowadays. Earlier, Indians from elite schools used to come to US for doctrol studies and many have taken up teaching profession.

Bryan :

The assertion that the rising powers like India and China are still sending their brightest to the US is wrong. It might have be correct a few years ago, but not anymore.

Reading from Indian newspapers I understand the cream from the premier institutions like IITs and IIMs are now staying back. Only the average students are crossing the shores for better career prospects. I understand this is the reason why we don't find many Indians doing PhDs in US nowadays. Earlier, Indians from elite schools used to come to US for doctrol studies and many have taken up teaching profession.

FlyOnTheWall:

Amar,

I think you're missing the central difference between the American system and most foreign systems of higher education: layered opportunity. What Cairncross takes for dilletantism might better be characterized as the freedom to explore. Consider that in the UK, most students set their course in life at the age of sixteen when they commence studying for their A-Levels. They apply to university, devote themselves to a narrow field of study, and launch into their chosen professions. In the oft-derided liberal arts system that prevails in America, most students have little idea what they will study when they apply to university. Once there, they can enroll simultaneously in unrelated courses, including, yes, the study of non-Anglo cultures in such colonial backwaters as Africa and India. (One can almost hear the scorn dripping from Caircross' voice.) Many of these courses will have little bearing on their eventual occupations - and that's precisely the point. University, in the States, is a time of experimentation and exploration. It broadens students' horizons as they slowly gravitate to the fields in which they are most likely to thrive.

Why does this matter? Ask the sixteen year-old girl who thinks she wants to be an English teacher, but goes to college and falls in love with her cognitive neuroscience class.

There is, to be sure, a tremendous inefficiency in this system. Americans spend longer in school, but tend to spend less time studying in their field. It does make them less prepared, in terms of knowledge, than their foreign peers, when they embark upon the graduate component of their education - albeit better prepared to be creative, to take risks, to acquire future knowledge. But there's a greater inefficiency in the continental system, which tends to screen out the economically disdvantaged, the intellectually restless, and the late blooming. (Instead of talking to students at Oxford, you might to better to speak with disaffected youths throughout the UK before passing judgment on the relative strengths of the educational systems.)

There's another side to this divide, too. America has more research universities - many, many more research universities, a number far out of proportion to its greater population. (The 2005 Carnegie Classification lists 83 basic doctoral granting institutions, 103 more with a high rate of research, and an additional 96 with a 'very high' rate of research. Almost every American university on the list of the top 100 is drawn from that final category.) After Oxford and Cambridge, there are just 4 more British universities in the top 50. It's not that Americans are smarter - it's that we're far more committed to providing every citizen with the opportunity to receive the best possible education. The UK, by contrast, aims for efficiency - if you're not going into academia, the learned professions, or science, you don't need a research university education.

The advantages of that density are obvious, but worth enumerating: American academics have an easier time hosting conferences, publishing journals, collaborating with colleagues at other institutions, or obtaining admission or jobs for both spouses in one city. This isn't such a strange concept - London thrives as a financial capital for precisely the same reasons. A single institution, however excellent, is never going to outcompete a network of very good competitors.

R.D.Jonez:

The way that Amar's piece started out was (probably intentionally) telling: "the rector of Exeter College at Oxford University, sits in a 700-year-old chair". The age of one's chair is a lot more important at Oxford than it is at MIT. The English spend a lot of time congratulating themselves on being English while the rest of the world passes them by. Unfortunately English education reflects the larger English society, which has generally economically and technically stagnated since World War II, and remains more concerned about economic comfort and tradition than innovation. It is relatively inconceiveable to me that there could be Silicone Valley in the UK. Students who want to work on the cutting edge in their field come to the U.S.

Kevin:

If you want to know what America will look like in 100 years, look at New York City now. 100 years ago, there were pig farms in NYC. You don't see them now. 100 years ago, there was industry in New York City. That industry is all but gone. 100 years ago, there were scientists in New York City. Except at the universities, there are no scientists there now.

We are becoming a country that does only two things--we own and we control. We don't make. We don't invent. We outsource that now.

All of America will one day be like Manhattan is now. As Manhattan is an enormous city in the business of owning and controlling the world--fashion, media, finance--so will America become an enormous country full of investment bankers, lawyers, advertising executives, etc. who spend their lives toiling over the ownership and control of the world.

So, what am I saying exactly? I'm saying that it doesn't matter who invents what where, America will one day own it and control it anyway. Our education system is designed to produce owners and controllers, not inventors. We own, not toil.

That's what everyone wants, so that's why they come here. They want to learn how to own and control, not how to chart the life-cycle and sexual preferences of the tse-tse fly. They can go to Oxford to learn that.

And, that's why our best and brightest go into law, medicine and business and not aeronautical engineering and mathematics. They know that ownership and control are more important than invention.

And, that's why the foreigners who come to our country study engineering and mathematics. It's because they haven't yet been acculturated and assimilated to the degree that they realize that owning and controlling is the key to the American dream.

But, the children of those foreigners who stay here will be investment bankers, and lawyers, and so on.

And so it goes. These are the trappings of empire.

Elizabeth:

I think Mr. Bakshi should have been a little more particular in his description of the rankings from which the "top ten" he cites are pulled. The Newsweek study is looking specifically at the "global" quality of each university, in particular. While certainly most of the "best" universities in the world are included in the list, it isn't accurate to call THIS top 100 THE top 100 (or 10, as Bakshi does).

Geoffrey Henny:

I was an Ameripean student from grade school through graduate school (including UC Berkeley and Oxford) in the US, UK, France and Switzerland. Based on that experience, I would agree that primary/secondary and undergraduate education at the best schools favors the UK and graduate school the US using historical criteria such as an abiilty to write, do quantitative analysis, master a subject and present a cogent argument. However, the challenge facing European education is a lack of innovative and creative energy, with the exception of the sciences in the UK and Math in France. I found that in the US, even at the undergraduate level, there is always this stress on pushing the envelope even if you don't have all the skills, giving it a go, trying new things and exploring cross disciplinary solutions. With notable exceptions this is less apparent in Eurpean instutions. The other factor that has been alluded to by others is the power of money and competition. European academics have not be comfortable focusing on either. In the end US universities at the top will be so rich with ever growing endowment they will sustain their advantage and be able to offer a free ride with the best resources to the brightest kids in the world whatever happens to the country and government around them.

Geoffrey Henny:

I was an Ameripean student from grade school through graduate school (including UC Berkeley and Oxford) in the US, UK, France and Switzerland. Based on that experience, I would agree that primary/secondary and undergraduate education at the best schools favors the UK and graduate school the US using historical criteria such as an abiilty to write, do quantitative analysis, master a subject and present a cogent argument. However, the challenge facing European education is a lack of innovative and creative energy, with the exception of the sciences in the UK and Math in France. I found that in the US, even at the undergraduate level, there is always this stress on pushing the envelope even if you don't have all the skills, giving it a go, trying new things and exploring cross disciplinary solutions. With notable exceptions this is less apparent in Eurpean instutions. The other factor that has been alluded to by others is the power of money and competition. European academics have not be comfortable focusing on either. In the end US universities at the top will be so rich with ever growing endowment they will sustain their advantage and be able to offer a free ride with the best resources to the brightest kids in the world whatever happens to the country and government around them.

Mike:

"Due to recent changes in the economical, political and social situation in the US, I suspect that more and more the students will decide that maybe "there's no place like home."

Except this isn't true. For example, just recently German newspapers opined about the "brain drain" going on there with many young people coming to the US, as well as Switzerland. This is due more to the high German unemployment than anything else however.

Laura:

What on earth is she talking about? The U.S university system spans thousands of cities of all shapes and sizes, and an entire diverse country many times the size of Britain. Oxford and Cambridge are 80 miles from each other, in cities of similar sizes and age. Yes, the U.S. is one country, but that's far from meaning that viewpoints are more narrow here than in the U.K. Sounds like sour grapes to me.

Arslan Malik:

The other thing to note is that only Oxford and Cambridge are notable in the UK, and perhaps that is because of their 700 year old legacy. As far as resources, British universities do not compare to American ones. This is hardly surprising as American universities cost tens of thousands of dollars to attend while Mr. Blair was hated for trying to push forward top-up fees of a few thousand pounds.

Jessica:

All I can say is that like world university rankings (most of which list Cambridge as 2nd and Oxford as 3rd), not all of Oxbridge is created equal. That said, many departments in the UK far exceed their American equivalents in terms of quality and prestige of research produced as well as the number of internationally-renowned (and in some cases Nobel prize-winning) scholars.

Furthermore, these rankings really should be taken with a grain of salt. Is it not extraordinary that the London School of Economics (LSE), the world's best social science research institution--which has absolutely no trouble attracting top international students, by the way--ranks 34th in some world rankings but 17th than others when it basically only offers courses in one subject area?

Erik:

Unfortunately (well, for though of us who hold an Oxford degree), I fear Oxbridge will continue to lag behind it's similar US counterparts in producing top flight professionals and academics.

Ms Cairncross is right to point to a qualitative difference in the undergraduate curriculum between US colleges and Oxbridge. The work load is far heavier and more focused on a single subject and the tutorial system provides nowhere to hide. This develops a level of competence and self-reliance most US undergrads will never know. I would go so far as to compare Oxbridge BA/MA degrees as equivilent to many US masters programs.

The major differences, however, are two-fold:

Oxbridge graduate programs, particularly D.Phils lag behind their equivilent US counterparts. It is a research only degree, whereas in US universities you are required to undertake methodological coursework and exams before undertaking research. This is supposed to happen at Oxford during the three year undergraduate period, or a year between. In practice Oxbridge graduate students often slip through the cracks and are forced to produce original writing too soon. Many Americans with Oxbridge D.Phils have a tough time in the US academic job market.

The other major reason is that, while a majority of Oxbridge colleges are very wealthy, it isn't in a liquid form. They are forced to rely on government subsidies (in fact, they are regarded as public institutions) and tuition costs for students are minimal. In practice, they have expanded graduate programs to attract foreign students who will have to pay full rate. But until they are privatized (a move many in both universities would jump at, I suspect), they are handicapped in their efforts to produce funds that could attract top academics or produce great research. While Oxford has now turned to its alumni for fundraising purposes (my favorite being that there is a seperate US fundraising arm), there is no way to compare its resources to the endowments of Harvard, Yale, Chicago or Stanford.

The result is a sort of reverse brain drain to what the above poster describes. Many top UK academics and researchers end up coming to the States because the salaries are higher and the funding better.

Tom:

The dominance of American research universities is not just in the top ten, it is throughout the top one hundred and is staggering (15 of the top 20, 21 of the top 30, etc.). The national universities of major western European countries pepper into the list around state schools like UC Santa Barbara and Michigan State. These schools are not competing AT ALL with the non-American universities. They are competing almost entirely with one another. Sports analogy: Oxford and Cambridge are like the best European professional basketball teams and the US schools are the NBA. They are very good teams and they have players that could compete in the NBA and, in some cases, those players get paid more to play in Italy, but the NBA doesn't have to go overseas begging players to try-out. Same for the US schools. Very talented foriegn students will beat a path to Harvard and Yale and Princeton, but more telling for the disparity, also to Indiana and Washington.

terrance, houston, USA:

i shouldn't say this, given that i'm an american graduate student, but the best and brightest among american students choose the professions - medicine, law, business, not research, generally, or research-science, specifically. who wants to spend 5 years under the thumb of an advisor, working 90 hpw for little pay, and bear the uncertainty of never attaining the degree when there are more lucrative, easier-to-attain options? that said, i should note that supposed talent deficit of american graduate students is, generally speaking, rather a myth. there *is* an issue of differential preparation and, therefore, skills. americans are clearly less well-educated for their fields prior to entering graduate study. this gap can be closed, depending on the student and the program.

dkm:

Thank you for mentioning that Cambridge, UK, is ranked internationally. As a matter of fact, the Japanese government favors it over MIT when it comes time to pay for Japanese students studying abroad.

As for the argument of liberal arts vs. narrow studies, my experience with products of each system comes down squarely in favor of a broad education. I worked with a British entomologist who knew tse-tse flies and nothing else. That would never happen in the States. Also, having been exposed to a wider variety of thought makes you more adept at analysis, not less, because you have seen more than one way to "skin a cat." The problem is that the US has gotten away from that paradigm so that now foreign universities are able to compete in the quality of their products.

It seems to me that the famous "brain drain" was mostly a result of better living standards and more opportunity in the US than in the home country. People enjoyed life here and decided to stay. Due to recent changes in the economical, political and social situation in the US, I suspect that more and more the students will decide that maybe "there's no place like home."

HK:

Good thing!
-Since our home-grown talent is so poor...

ASHIQ:

America is still the land of oportunity compared to the UK. Students come to the US not only to learn but also to build a career, and thats what makes America desirable.

the scrivner:

I take issue with Frances Cairncross' use of the word "pillaged" because 1) no one forces international students to come to the US; they do it of their own volition, and 2) the word mostly reminds me of the last 300 years of British history: Ms Cairncross should take a stroll down to London's Bloomsbury and visit the British Museum, tour the Elgin Marbles and take a gander at the Rosetta stone, things like that, then maybe rethink her use of the term.


terrance, houston, USA:

i'm a graduate student in the field of statistics (working with medical data) here in U.S. the graduate student body is largely international, with heavy dollops of students from china. in the sciences, the dominating value conveyed to we students is that academic innovation is a competitive marketplace where the quality of one's results trumps one's origin or circumstances in determining success. of course, one's success is completing graduate school derives from prior preparation and the quality of instruction and advising one receives. yet, to understand why the U.S. attracts so many international students, it is this notion of a self-regulating marketplace for ideas that is at the root. this marketplace can be harder to see when one looks at a few 'top' institutions. one viewed as a whole, the u.s. is filled with a barely countable number of high quality research institutions that vigorously compete with one another grants, students and discoveries. So, given two relatively wealthy countries, the UK and U.S., I would suggest that it is the lack of a national attitude, but the series of local, by university, action that drives success to attract international students.

Lastly, just a word to express, indeed, you are correct that american students are generally poorly prepared for graduate study as compared to their international peers. this lack of preparation is compounded by faculty tendency to conflate skills and talent, so that more energy is devoted to those that know than to those that need to learn. it is also true that u.s. universities often indulge their undergraduate students with class-based notions to supply a 'well-rounded' education that effectively shields students from the need to develop deeper, more functional skills.

Amar C. Bakshi:

A dire prediction indeed, Keith. I've met a few students here from the UK who receive special grants from the government because they have chosen to pursue math or science in university. This seems a valuable step in building up future British scientists, and these students were well aware of it. - Amar

Keith:

As the standard of living increases in so-called second and third world countries, the engineers and scientist trained in the U.S. will choose to return home and pursue their careers rather than remain in the U.S. Being that the U.S. public education system is not churning out too many of students with the requisite math and science skills, this will gradually erode our competitive edge. Our public schools continue to churn out students with grad-inflated report cards that can write a simple paragraph or solve math problems. We will become a nation of select few that have a clue, and a vast majority of Wall-Mart greeters, some with PhDs in Literary Classics.

Keith:

As the standard of living increases in so-called second and third world countries, the engineers and scientist trained in the U.S. will choose to return home and pursue their careers rather than remain in the U.S. Being that the U.S. public education system is not churning out too many of students with the requisite math and science skills, this will gradually erode our competitive edge. Our public schools continue to churn out students with grad-inflated report cards that can write a simple paragraph or solve math problems. We will become a nation of select few that have a clue, and a vast majority of Wall-Mart greeters, some with PhDs in Literary Classics.

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