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Archive for the ‘Higher education’ Category

As I’ve mentioned before, back in February I was in Cambridge for a few days with my son looking at colleges to help him decide his university applications. Here are 3 more colleges that we saw during our time there, Saint Catharine’s College, Gonville & Caius and Magdalene College.

Saint Catharine’s College, Cambridge

Saint Catharine’s College was founded in 1473. Some of the more famous alumni are the journalist and TV presenter Jeremy Paxman, the actor Sir Ian McKellan and the 18th Century Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne, who developed the Lunar parallax method of determining longitude.



Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge

Gonville and Caius College was founded in 1348. Some of the more famous alumni are Harold Abrahams (who won gold in the 100m at the 1924 Paris Olympics and is one of the main heroes in the film “Chariots of Fire”), Nobel Prize winning physicist Max Born and TV presenter and comedian Jimmy Carr.



Magdalene College, Cambridge

Magdalene College was founded in 1428. The college’s full name is The College of Saint Mary Magdalene. The pronunciation of Magdalene is Mawd-lin, so has retained the pronunciation from how it was pronounced in English when the college was founded, not how we tend to pronounce Magdalene today. Some notable alumi of the college are Julian Fellowes (who has written the successful TV series “Downton Abbey”), C.S. Lewis (author of “The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe”), and the diarist Samuel Pepys.


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Recently the following list of the World’s best universities was published. The list has been put together by an organisation called QS. I have no idea who this organisation is, but you can read more about them here. The top 20 were, in order


  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA
  2. University of Cambridge, UK
  3. Harvard University, USA
  4. University College London, UK
  5. Oxford University, UK
  6. Imperial College London, UK
  7. Yale University, USA
  8. University of Chicago, USA
  9. Princeton University, USA
  10. California Institute of Technology, USA

  11. Columbia University, USA
  12. University of Pennsylvania, USA
  13. ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology), Switzerland
  14. Cornell University, USA
  15. Stanford University, USA
  16. Johns Hopkins University, USA
  17. University of Michigan, USA
  18. McGill University, Canada
  19. University of Toronto, Canada
  20. Duke University, USA


Compare this to this list drawn up by the Times Higher Education(THE) in 2011/12, which has

  1. California Institute of Technology, USA
  2. Harvard University, USA
  3. Stanford University, USA
  4. Oxford University, UK
  5. Princeton University, USA
  6. Cambridge University, UK
  7. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA
  8. Imperial College London, UK
  9. University of Chicago, USA
  10. University of California, Berkeley, USA

  11. Yale University, USA
  12. Columbia University, USA
  13. University of California, Los Angeles, USA
  14. Johns Hopkins University, USA
  15. ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology), Switzerland
  16. University of Pennsylvania, USA
  17. University College London, UK
  18. University of Michigan, USA
  19. University of Toronto, Canada
  20. Cornell University, USA



The first thing that strikes me about the two lists is how Caltech can be 10th in the first list and 1st in the second list. But, also, how consistent the two lists are in terms of their top 10. Of the top 10 universities in the first list, 8 are also in the top 10 in the second list, drawn up by an entirely different organisation. What this probably illustrates is that the differences between the top 10, or even the top 15 universities in the World are minimal, and depend on exactly what is assessed and what weight is given to each element of the assessment.

When I was applying to university in 1981, the only criterion used for the assessment of a university or a department was its research. I had a lot of pressure put on my to apply to either Oxford or Cambridge, as I was deemed to be “Oxbridge” material. I was not keen to go to either, and thankfully for me I found out that the top rated Physics department in the UK at the time was neither Oxford nor Cambridge, but was Imperial College London. I applied to Imperial, without applying to either Oxford or Cambridge, and it was at Imperial I studied my Physics degree. I found it interesting when I arrived there to discover that about 50% of my class-mates had, like me, chosen Imperial above all others; and the other 50% had failed to get into Cambridge (I don’t remember anyone being an Oxford reject).

Nowadays, things have broadened in terms of how departments and universities are assessed. In addition to research reputation, other factors such as teaching quality, staff to student ratio, library and sporting facilities, student accommodation, diversity of students, cost of living etc are also taken into consideration. But, I would wager that the top 15 universities in the World, as assessed by the various organisations who compile such lists, has probably remained largely unchanged over the last 30 years.

In 1993-94, I was lucky enough to spend a year lecturing at Swathmore College in the USA. I must admit, prior to applying there for a job, I had never heard of the place. It turns out it is one of the top 3 private liberal arts colleges in the US. Along with Williams and Amherst, Swarthmore seems to be perennially in the top 3. Certainly I was taken aback by the quality of the students who attend Swarthmore, they had all graduated top of their high-school classes, and had chosen Swarthmore rather than Harvard of Yale or MIT or Princeton because of the excellent undergraduate teaching for which it is renowned. It is a very small college, only 1200 students attended when I lectured there, although this has now grown to some 1500. But that is still tiny compared to the 50,000+ undergraduates one tends to find at the larger US universities. A staggering 5 Swarthmore graduates have won a Nobel prize, which given that only some 300 graduate each year, is a truly incredible ratio. I is also, per student, the best endowed higher education institute in the World. How I wish the Dinsunited Kingdom had undergraduate teaching colleges/universities of such quality.


Imperial College London, my alma mater.


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