Best universities?

Wessex_Man said:

Anyone else read this and what do you think?
I have a lot of problems with their methodology, not least the fact it allows the Universities to trade on their reputation, rather than what they're doing at the moment. For example, the University of California schools are in the middle of a huge funding crisis. They have no money to hire new faculty, award pay rises and add courses. The make the books balance now, they are dragging in more and more students, many of whom are not qualified to be there. (Shades of the UK problem methinks.) This also means overcrowding. I know for a fact that there are some classes at UCLA (No.14 IIRC) with in excess of 1,000 undergraduates in them. Most students watch the professor on a CCTV feed in another classroom.

One also has to question the motives behind this survey. I think part of it might be to "Big-Up" places that take a lot of Chinese students- hence the unusually high proportion of West Coast US schools in the top 50. I'm at one of those mentioned and in general, the Chinese students are sh1te. Most of them can't even effectively communicate in the English language, so it's clear to everyone that cheating on the ESL and aptitude tests (SAT, GRE, MCAT etc.) is endemic in China.

Of course, there is another question of a University's reputation in general, and how good an indicator it is. A better measure would be by department/school/faculty and academic structure. (Like the British RAE.) Otherwise things can get misleading.

By way of illustration one survey each year asks US educators (teachers and bureaucrats etc.) to name the top Education departments in US universities. Every year Princeton University polls in the top 5. The problem? PRINCETON DOESN'T HAVE AN EDUCATION DEPARTMENT!!!
crabtastic -

Many thanks for your comments. As an "insider" perhaps you could help re a couple of points:

1. "credit hours"/ "semester hours" mean what exactly? Presumably a course designation of, say, "3 semester hours" means 3 hours of teaching/ contact time per week for a semester ? Surely it can't mean just 3 hours per semester?! I have had confusing and contradictory feedback on this.
2. What is your opinion of American "General Education"/ "Distribution" requirements? It all looks very impressive, but a former pupil of mine, currently at a top 20 ranked US Univ, has found the "Fresher" & "Sophomore" years intensely frustrating - lots to do, but in his opinion, not much more academically demanding than GCSE & A level work. He has stuck with it because he has dual nationality, wants to go to law school in the States, and tuition fees are not an issue (Old Man loaded and happy to fork out etc), and of course the facilities are outstanding and he's having a great time socially. However, he does not reckon that it would be worth the expense for most Brits unless, of course, like him they're intending staying Stateside long term.

There's been a lot in the British press of late re the excellence of American univs (based primarily on the Jiao Tong ranking) and how more UK students ought to consider them in preference to UK institutions: much made of the broad "liberal arts & sciences" tradition etc.. Quite a few of my pupils are now very keen, but the feedback from aforementioned individual gives pause for thought: he was a bright but idle pupil who did predictably well in U.S. SATS but only achieved respectable A Levels (Bs); couldn't get "Advanced Placement" for his A levels because they were not A grades, and yet has found the first two years a doddle - was much amused when recycled GCSE history coursework (graded C by us) was awarded "A - OUTSTANDING!" when he submitted it as a "class paper". Similarly, he found that his GCSEs in maths, science and modern languages left him more than adequately equipped to cope with other GE requirements. In his opinion, the first 2 years of a U.S. bachelor's programme would be a waste of time academically for any Brit who had a good clutch of GCSEs plus a couple of respectable A Levels: a big consideration when one considers that a 3 yr BA/ BSc in UK will cost a home student approx £10,000 compared with the likely cost of a 4 year BA/ BS Stateside of $100,000+!

It is possible, of course, that this lad's innate intelligence would carry him through any course anywhere and that he simply doesn't have enough experience objectively to judge what he's doing and how/ why he is finding it easy. However, his comments do ring true to me: my own experience of American undergrads was over 20 years ago, but I formed the impression back then that, although generally very confident and articulate, the average U.S. student was, in academic terms, at least 2 years behind the average Brit.

No doubt, of course, that US Univs lead the World re research, applications etc, and the facilities of even the smallest institutions make most of our places seem shabby by comparison, but I am not convinced that the undergrad education is quite what it's cooked up to be. It would be very helpful to get your perspective on this.

Thanking you in anticipation!

Although Crabtastic's knowledge in this field probably needs little corroboration from me, I'd echo his point about the part of the university in question (i.e. a specific faculty or department) versus the establishment as a whole.

Many years ago, as an undergraduate, I bagged a summer job in the admissions office of what was (then) one of the better polytechnics in the UK. Some of our courses you couldn't fill if you paid people, but our Business Faculty had two courses (which IIRC were Law and Business Studies and Law and European Languages) which people with offers from really solid red-brick universities (this was in the days of UCCA and PCAS) were fighting to get on.

So if I were to do, say, a Post-Grad I'd look at the best place for my subject not the "best place" overall, and as CT suggests this probably applies to first degrees just as much.

Wessex Man

Not quite sure about the first point from an admin perspective, but in the almost all "full size" (i.e. 4 Unit) undergrad classes have 3-4 contact hours per week. A full course load would be 4 x 4 unit classes= 16 hours a week in the classroom and reading/exercises independent study etc. is normally expected to be another 16 hourse on top of that. (Never works out like that in practice though- lazy b@stards.) My first degree in UK had an average of 9 hours a week. There are more hoops to jump though in the US also. Midterm exams (normally in weeks 6-8 ), multiple papers and a final exam at the end.

The GE classes are, in general, pish and are usually considered an embuggerance by the students and a waste of their time and money. We try to make them fun though because, if done well, they can be a valuable recruiting tool for the department. Remember, students are accepted to the University in general and declare a major once they are ehre. At my place, each Brad and Caitlin that takes a single class with us brings in $4,500. (Without Finacial Aid, the bank of Mommy & Daddy probably won't see much change from a quarter of a million dollars after 4 years, once you throw in accommodation, books etc. Average student loan debt for a graduating student at my place is around $60,000 IIRC.)

Generally, in terms of which system is better, I'd actually say that British educated students are more self motivated and resourceful. The spams, mainly because they are paying so much cash to be there, do get pandered to quite a bit and are spoon-fed a lot more. E.g. "Course readers" are produced in-house that have all the journal articles etc. in them already, so they don't have to go trogging through the library, the result is that you can easily graduate a bunch of students that don't know how to look for information and conduct research for themselves.

I've also come to the conclusion that it's all about trade-offs. Someone educated in the British system has greater depth of knowledge than their American counterpart, but the Spam has a greater breadth of knowledge. For example, in my field (International Politics) you can get a good degree in the UK without knowing how to add 2+2 together. In the US you have certain requirements to fulfill in unrelated fields, so the graduate tends to be much better with numbers, etc. (My department also makes all our students- undergrad and grad- take at least 4 semesters of a foreign language unless they can demonstrate proficiency on arrival.) Both systems provide a different skill set to potential employers, but, all other things being equal, unless I was looking for a specialist in the field, as an employer I'd probably choose the Spam just because, by the time they graduate, they would be more flexible.

I have little doubt though that the product of the British school system is far and away better than that of the American system. Although we have some of the highest scoring students of any university on the West Coast, we get some real dross rolling in. The Spams are taught to pass the SAT, which is primarily a multiple choice test. Their writing skills are atrocious and the University makes every undergrad take two 16 weeks writing classes during their 4 years. When they get to us, they are not very good analytical thinkers either. They've been taught how to pass the test, not how to think. We can only dream of what we could do with them if we didn't have to go over remedial stuff with them that the average British pupil has drilled into them by the time they're 13-14.

Veg, valid points all, but I'd also add that in terms of choosing a place to study, reputation still counts for a lot at the end. If you will be staying in a related field for your career, then it's OK to make your choice by Dept, because potential employers will know the score. On the other hand, if you're just going into the general workforce, then I'd say the uni's repuation as a whole might be more important. For example, by all quantifiable measures, the Dept of International Politics at Aberystwyth beats LSE hands down when it comes to International Politics. But, when you're going for a job on Tesco's graduate trainee programme, which place do you think the interviewer will look more favourably on?
crabtastic -

Many thanks for the reply - very helpful.

Just for fun (and cos I'm a sad git seeking a 20 min distraction from essay marking!), and based purely on my own tastes and prejudices & what I've heard & seen, here's my list of the best American univs and colleges. I exclude the 8 "Ivy League" schools whose reputation goes before them anyway, and IMHO they're no better than many other less famous places.

1. Bowdoin & Williams
2. Dickinson
3. Middlebury
4. Kenyon
5. Wooster
6. Reed

1. Chicago (THE best in the USA?)
2. Johns Hopkins
3. Duke (my favourite)
4. Boston
5. NYU
6. Tufts
7. Brandeis
8. Notre Dame
9. Stanford (country club living!)
10. Northwestern
11. Rice
12. Georgetown
13. Drexel
14. Yeshiva

1. Virginia (not far behind Chicago, in my view, & very beautiful campus!)
2. Berkeley
3. William & Mary (and Old Dominion)
4. Delaware
5. City College of New York
6. Mississippi
7. Rutgers
8. N Carolina
9. Minnesota
10. Ohio State
11. Vermont
12. Pennsylvania State
13. Miami, Ohio
14. Maine
15. Texas, Austin
16. Indiana
17. Binghamton, SUNY
18. UCLA
19. Michigan
20. Wisconsin
21. Oklahoma
22. N Dakota
23. West Virginia (the "poor relation" of Virginia, but rather undeservedly overlooked, in my opinion)
24. Washington State
25. Oregon

1. Cal Tech & MIT
2. Harvey Mudd
3. Carnegie-Mellon
4. Georgia Tech
5. Texas A&M

1. Virginia Military Institute
2. The Citadel
3. Norwich (not strictly speaking a military school, I know, but...)

If you can spare the time, what do you and your colleagues think? Have I missed out anywhere good that an interested 6th former ought to consider?



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