Monday, March 26, 2007

UK vs US: A Different Perspective

I wrote a while back on the general perception of United Kingdom vs United States universities. It attracted a fair bit of interest and a lot of comments. Tilia Wong, who's studying at San Jose State University, with a prior stint at a Australian university, wrote in to express her differing views from my post(s). She has kindly permitted me to reproduce her letter here, and share her views with our readers. ;)

"I was reading your blog titled United Kingdom vs. United States dated the 24th of April 2006 and I feel rather compelled to write to you about it. I started looking for blog posts on this topic after my father had a conversation with some of his friends where they passed some rather derogatory remarks concerning the American education system. At this point, I should state that I am a junior at San Jose State University studying civil engineering.

In your blog post, you wrote that you thought a UK degree was more specialised and a US one is more generalised. Well, I have not studied in the UK, but I did do one year of civil engineering in Australia whose system, I understand, is very similar to the British one. I studied in Australia for year and then I found that I did not enjoy life there and decided to transfer to the United States. I redid many of the same courses and therefore I think that I am fully equipped to make a comparison of the two.

The subjects taken during the course of the degree are highly similar. However, when you compare the content of the subject, the American degree is actually more in depth than the Australian one. I will compare the first year subjects since I did them in both countries and therefore can make a fairer assesment. In Australia, I did two semesters of math which was a mix of calculus, matrices and so on. In America, I did 3 semesters of calculus, one of differential equations and another of linear algebra. In Australia, I did one semester of Engineering Mechanics which consisted of statics and dynamics. In America, the subjects were split up with one semester dedicated to each. The American semester is about 16 weeks long and the Australian semester has about 13 weeks worth of lecture. Please feel free to draw your own conclusions from these figures.

Your blog post also stated that one does not have to decide which specialisation until the second year in America. Basically, the system does not FORCE you to declare a major until you feel like it. However, if you do not have a clear major in mind from the very beginning and follow a strict program, you will not graduate in four years. It is no different from going to the UK, declaring one major and then switching to another. In the US, you just call the first major undeclared and you are free to take a myriad of subjects to figure out what you want to do. However, if you do so, most of the courses will not go towards your degree and some people take seven years to graduate. Its not as if you are free to bum around, take 2 years of art history courses and then decide to major in accounting later. You will pay the price if you do that.

You stated that your friend Kian Ming "did it right" by doing undergrad in UK and postgrad in the US. I do not think there is any "right" way of doing it. Some people have very good memories and can cram for final exams that are worth 70% of your grade. Others, prefer doing research, working on projects, and accumulating knowledge slowly over the semester. Both systems have their merits and to say that doing undergrad in UK is the right way is somewhat derogatory.

Personally, I felt stifled and cooped up in Australia. Coming to America has exposes you to new technology, a level of diversity that is incomparable, and an opportunity to learn things you would normally never even dream of reading about. I am a civil engineer but the American general education system has taught me political science, public speaking techniques, writing techniques, art history, yoga, salsa, and kinesiology to name a few. On top of that, I do believe that I have a strong grounding in civil engineering.

If American universities provided such a poor and shallow education on the specific major since it is not as in depth, then how does America beat so many nations on every level? Because of America's good postgraduate programs? The majority does not do postgraduate studies.

Now that I have spoken my piece on American universities, I would like to comment on university rankings.

I do have to make the observation that you tend to focus on and place great weight on top ranking universities. I do agree that attending a top ranking university carries with it great prestige and an enhanced university experience. However, your blog is probably read by a lot of people and statistically speaking, most of them should be average both in academic results and financial might. If your aim is to advise people on the best course to take, a lot of the paths you have suggested are out of the question for 95% of the population.

I realise that you have placed a note at the bottom of most of your posts that you realise that national rankings may be inaccurate. However, I would like to cite you an example using my university demonstrating exactly how irrelevant university rankings can be. San Jose State University is not highly ranked on the overall national scale. However, it is ranked 10th in the nation for undergraduate engineering and 5th for industrial and computer engineering. It is only ranked 41st of the universities in the West for the overall ranking. It is not fair to judge a university graduate's degree based on the national overall ranking alone. Perhaps it would be more beneficial to the public if you would educate them by pointing out the potential for large disparities between the national ranking and the specific course ranking.

Another example of national overall university rankings having very little to do with the calibre of the student (at least in the United States) is this. San Jose State University is surrounded by high ranking, ivy league powerhouses. Stanford, and Santa Clara Unversity are less than twenty minutes drive away. In a 5 hour driving radius, you can find USC, UCLA, and UC Berkeley just to name a few. All of these are higher ranked than San Jose State University. However, San Jose State supplies the highest number of graduates in the world to Silicon Valley with companies like Intel, Yahoo, Google, Ebay, Cisco and so on. Why are these companies choosing lower ranked university graduates over the ivy league ones if national ranking really tells a person so much about how good their graduate is? It cannot be from the lack of applications from other unversity graduates. A recent survey stated that Silicon Valley pays out the highest median income in the United States. Yet a university ranked 41st in the West is trouncing other universities in terms of employment in Silicon Valley.

Well, these are my opinions on the American education system and university rankings. I hope that you will give them some thought."


Silent Me Not AUthor 1 said...

Hi Tony,

I can't resist the temptation of refuting the claims of the author of the aforementioned letter. While she might be correct on the point that American system of "general education" in the first two years are indeed "fun" and "enligthening", and perhaps "more exciting" than the dull english system, I would certainly beg to disagree with her following points:

1) By completing only one year of undergraduate studies in both systems would only allow the author to experience the first year (which often the "fun" year) - and definitely does nothing to justify her claim of comparison between the quality of the degree, especially the technical side of things.

2) more modules on the same subjects doesn't necessary mean you learn more. similar with the lecture hours. Refering to the San Jose course catalog available HERE , and making quick comparison with three different british universities - UNSW(Aus), UoCanterbury (NZ), Imperial COllege(UK), between their first years courses - i.e the mathematics, mechanics-statics/dynamics, etc as well as civil engineering courses. We can safely conclude, the British systems do have superiority in terms of technical content of their courses. No doubt. While having more technical content is not necessary the best thing for "education", but that certainly refute the author's idea that she is learning more at San Jose.

3)Of course, there's no "right" way of doing a undergraduate degree. But inreality, Tony and Kian Ming were making a comparison between the quality of undergraduate degrees between British system and American system.

4) lastly, more importantly, i really wanted to highlight the author's statement of "On top of that, I do believe that I have a strong grounding in civil engineering". Indeed "strong grounding" is all she gets. In reality, (upon making the comparison as mentioned before), she is only doing basic courses in civil engineering that are covered in most british systems. In order to match the technical expertise of british system graduates, she really ought to do a M.E. :)

Civil Engineer (from NZ)

ps: US research did outpaced others, not because of its strong undergraduate programmes, but its rich and well-funded postgraduate R/D focussed programmes. While i am making most statements without clear evidence, the author is welcomed to contact me for more discussion. :P

tilia said...

1) I only completed one year in Australia before transferring out. I've done 3 years in the US system. I dont claim to know a lot about the Australian and British degree and I'm just talking about what I have experienced.

2) Yes, I know more modules doesnt necessarily mean you learn more but I cant exactly list out everything I learnt in Australia and everything I learnt here right? When I compare the basic physics, chemistry, math courses, that I took in both places, I feel that I learnt more in U.S. Since I didnt take the upper courses in Australia, I cant comment on the rest. And how did you come to that conclusion from the course comparison? You need to back up your statement.

3)In reality only Tony made that comparison and I guess there's no point debating this since only he knows what he meant.

4)Lastly, and most importantly, the word grounding was not meant to imply that I only am getting a strong grounding. Besides, its an undergrad degree. Its supposed to be the basics of engineering. If not whats the point of having masters and doctorate in engineering if you already learn all there is to know in undergrad. Did you take a look at the technical electives? Those are compulsory and are on a separate webpage so it is possible that you missed those.

P.S. One cannot do research without a strong "grounding" in undergrad that will provide you with the ability to grasps more difficult concepts later.

tilia said...

I took a few minutes to check out the course layouts that the first commentor mentioned. I dont find that they differ by much. Some classes they have that U.S doesnt have. But some classes U.S has that they dont have too. I dont see any superiority that he was so sure of. Besides, its probable that he didnt read the course descriptions. I did.

Anonymous said...


would you mind to disclose which Australian university u were studying?


Anonymous said...

At the end of the day if you brag too much about which university you are from and which country you end up being self centred and conceited rather than a team player and a good leader in any organization. Perhaps the bloggers should not try to generalise too much and not state that an ivy league US university is superior to all just because US is a superpower but rather come down to grass roots level and say what have I learnt and how can I apply it on the lalang level.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tilia:
I don't like to post comments here but seeing how people have bullied you, I just cannot stand it anymore. Don't worry about what these people say. For one thing, you really have the guts to say in their faces what you believe in. It is only in Singapore, Malaysia, China and the developing countries that people put so much worth on degrees from Oxbridge, Ivy League, etc. At my level, with degrees from UK and PhD from Canada and now a full prof in the US, and having seen how students from different academic systems and backgrounds survive or fail our general doctoral exam; and having seen PhDs from the Ivy League, etc., failed to get tenure here and elsewhere, I can say that if you are really smart, it doesn't matter where you come from. What matters most is how you perform in your current role and your past is forgotten. Let me expand on that. If one is already admitted and doing a bachelor program, the number of A's or D's he/she got at SPM or STP does not matter anymore. What matters would be your undergraduate grades. Once you are admitted into the graduate Master or PhD program, your undergraduate degree doesn't give you immunity or special treatment. Even if you are from Harvard or Cambridge, you can flunk as easily as anyone else if you don't work hard. Once you graduate with PhD, it would be the research experience and publications that count. Nobody can deny the expertise of a person with tons of publications in refereed journals even if he/she graduated from an obscure university. Just look around in the universities in Malaysia. The faculty members may graduate from Oxbridge or other top universities in the US or UK, but their chances of being hired in my university would be very slim based on their publications. I have studied with students from Oxbridge, and have worked with people with Oxbridge PhDs and have heard their presentations in scientific conferences. My opinion is they are just like anybody else. That is so sad because in Singapore and Malaysia, people put so much weight on Oxbridge PhDs. After my PhD, I turned down an offer of a lecturer position from NUS in Singapore (before they change their system) because I knew that a Singaporean with a PhD from Oxbridge would jump over me anytime. Looking at the people I know in NUS right now, I was right.
In the US, the debate is about how much you need to spend to study in a top university and whether that is worth it. Read the article "Success Doesn't Care Which College You Went To" by Laura Rowley in Yahoo Finance published April 28, 2006. In a question from a reader, she responded "Studies show the ranks of CEOs, at least, are not dominated by Ivy League grads. Spencer Stuart, the executive search firm, found 11 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 firms had Ivy League degrees -- down from 16 percent in 1998. A survey by the Wharton School found that in 2001, 10 percent of CEOs received undergraduate degrees at one of the eight Ivies; 48 percent earned them from public colleges and universities." As somebody told her, "it's all about your own motivation. You may get a job because you had a great resume. But if you're not producing, you can't say: 'But I went to so-and-so school.' "
Actually, when it comes to the undergraduate degrees in sciences and engineering, people in Asia actually need not look further than China. Wonder why there are so many graduate students from China in the US? I have to admit that those Chinese students we admit will survive our general doctoral exam better than most US undergraduate students. Are their undergraduate programs in the sciences and engineering more demanding? Go figure. So, don't simply rule out anyone just because of where he/she comes from. It is all in the space between the ears. Tilia, good luck and stay in the US.

coleong said...

I’m totally agreed with the above comment. There are difference stages in a career path. If you’re good, you’ll excel. It doesn’t matter which university you graduated from as long as you prepare yourself for the challenges in the real world. Whether it’s UK, US, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and else where, you just have to work hard to achieve your dream. As long as you focus on what you’re doing and try do be the best at all time, I could guarantee you that you’ll be doing fine no matter where you go.

Silent Me Not AUthor 1 said...

dear readers,

of course there are different paths of careers. In fact, mr anonymous got it spot-on with his answer that it doesn't matter where (too much) you get your undergraduate in terms of future career. But if we re discussing about the technical superiority of each system, as well as the undergraduate education in terms of producing "civil engineers", US system pales compared to british system.

I hold by my point. Tilia, i did read all the course descriptions. I even made a spreadsheet listing out SJSU compulsory courses and its syllabus, and the comparison to the three universities I have mentioned. Allow me to restate my point.

In the American systems, undergraduates students are compelled by the "liberal educationist" to undertake " history, yoga, salsa, and kinesiology...". Assuming the same student with the same amount of time and motivation, which system you think he/she would gain more technical expertise? Indeed some might argue, soft skills like public speaking and politics are important for one's development. But in british system, these are developed outside the academic classrooms. Of course we don't have "yoga and tennis or bowling101" for our undergraduate degrees. :)

to dear mr anonymous, I have no intention to bully miss tilia. I would just like to point out the factual difference between doing and not doing "finite element analysis for a structural major CE graduate", depending on where one did his/her degree. If any reasonable debate is called bullying, we might as well close down all blogs. Mr anonymous should also note the original posting that miss tilia refered to, in which the debate was not on oxbridge/mit/harvard vs normal san jose...but rather british (traditional) vs american(liberal) system.

ps: in many countries, undergraduate degree is what you need to practice as a civil engineer. If all you know is foundation and fundamentals, i would be really afraid to be in the bridge/sewer system/building/dam you designed. :)

Silent Me Not AUthor 1 said...

my apology for my crappy English. It's nearly 7am here, and I have been trying to finish up a conference presentation since my last posting. OMG. I need a life.

PS: my apology if I seems to offend you guys(miss tilia and dr anonymous)

jien sing said...

As always, just strive for the best wherever you go~

tilia said...

Dear Silent Me not,

Well then I dont know how you're drawing your conclusions because from what I see they look pretty similar to me.

Also, in the American system, most people are not able to finish in four years because of all the extra subjects they have to do. Those General Ed subjects are taken over summer or winter or maybe even in tandem at community colleges. We were then, not talking about a student with the same amount of time or motivation. I myself have to take classes during summer and winter breaks with no holiday for two years to finish in time.

When I listed some topics that I learnt about, a lot of them were learnt in a single class. As for the physical subjects, it is a one unit class that takes up about 2-3 hours a week and is really no more work than going to the gym. Besides, they are only compulsory in the CSU system not the American system.

If the GE classes have such a negative impact on engineering skills learnt in university, then technically you should mistrust even a MIT grad.

Out of the many classes that I have to take to graduate, only 6 are general education subjects. Do you really think that my taking these 6 extra subjects makes me that inferior of an engineer?

Coincidentally, we do learn finite element analysis here in SJSU. Since the available online course outline is but 5 sentences long, I doubt you have that firm a grasp as to extent of the classes I take.

P.S I meant fundamentals when compared to what people with a doctorate know. Since you so firmly believe that American engineers only know the bare basics of engineering, I hope you do not drive across the golden gate bridge anytime soon.

In any case, I see that you have made up your mind. You have a right to your opinon, but I hope you have the pleasure of working with a talented American graduate sometime soon.

darshini said...

YA maan!!
Dear mr.silent me not,
I too am a student in the US. I've been reading these comments posted and would like to make a comment. I am what they call an engineering reject. I came to the US wanting to do Mech. Engr. but not anymore. The main reason was the load of subjects that i had to take up before graduating. I'm one of those who takes 18 to 20 units a semester. i try to take as many TECHNICAL subjects as I can, but with Engineering it is close to impossible to take 5 junior engineering subjects at a time. this would not be a problem if all we had to do was study just a few weeks close to finals and get it done with. our lives would be so much easier. But rather we have to slog through out the sem. I do not disagree that the UK system also has homeworks and assignments all year round. but look at this way, what the UK system does in a semester is what we do in course 2semester. we have details that i do not think allows any space for fun even in the sophomore level. Even if the US systems is less detailed, our A mark is a 92% and a passing mark is a 70%, whereas in the UK system (generally) 70%+ is an A and all u need is a 40%+ to pass. so with your A's you can only pass our course figuratively speaking. we are not normal San Jose. San Jose students have a better prospectives to get a job in the silicon valley compared to Stanford which isnt that far away. Why, maybe because everyone realizes that public university students arent spoilt? (my opinion!) San jose is ranked 10th in the nation for engineering. the top three is MIT,Stanford and UC Berkeley. All these schools are expensive and UCs like Berkeley does not offer scholarships as it isnt in its policy.
I just wanted to ask u a question. If u actually have a presentation and its actually 7am in the morning, Why are you doing spreadsheets on universities. It isnt actually empirical to be put down on a spreadsheet. Like Tilia mentioned, the course description you find online is merely 5 lines that give you a summary of what is actually 5 pages. We get what they call the gree sheet for every class detailing every single lecture and activity. I think i can say for sure that even what we find online for an australian university is probably not the same either. Anyways, before you'll certify me dumb, i'll stop! payce!

Anonymous said...

Why are we using AUSTRALIAN (and NZ) universities to compare British and US universities?

Australia and NZ universities are influenced by British universities, but at the core of it, they're quite different. They're also quite influenced by US unis. The structure and the 'feel' of the universities might be more British. However, there are many American aspects too, particularily the greater flexibility in course structure.

IMO, Australia/NZ universities are a cross between the UK and US systems. Using Australia as a base to compare UK and US is not going to get us anywhere.

jien sing said...



"Even if the US systems is less detailed, our A mark is a 92% and a passing mark is a 70%, whereas in the UK system (generally) 70%+ is an A and all u need is a 40%+ to pass. so with your A's you can only pass our course figuratively speaking. we are not normal San Jose."

erm... from what I know, most courses are graded on a scale... so , comparing the marks without proper adjustments doesn't quite reflect the 'difficult-ness' of a university's curriculum relative to others...

matter of fact, I find my home university in Australia to have a higher curve relative to University of California at Berkeley... but of course, things are a little more complicated than it seems...

by the way, UC-Berkeley does offer scholarships to international students... I've actually met an undergrad and a post-grad who got full scholarships to study here... and one of them actually came here after doing A-Levels in M'sia...

also, Silicon Valley probably have research linkages with San Jose due to geographical proximity and for corporate interests... for example: Georgetown University is well-known for its Public Policy courses, and I can't say that it being situated in Washington D.C. doesn't have anything to do with the quality of their faculties...

Anyhow, I find your comment to be a good one and don't get me wrong, I am not taking potshots at u...

Best regards and kambateh in ur studies,
Jien Sing (THE accidental exchange student at UC-Berkeley... LOL)

Anonymous said...

"Even if the US systems is less detailed, our A mark is a 92% and a passing mark is a 70%, whereas in the UK system (generally) 70%+ is an A and all u need is a 40%+ to pass. so with your A's you can only pass our course figuratively speaking. we are not normal San Jose."


Anonymous said...

Incredible, isn't it, how we go on and on and on commenting on how great is that university we graduated from. I suspect Darshini and Tilia were brought up in Malaysia up to high school levels, my suspicion being based on their manifestation of that deeply rooted propensity of Malaysians to compare grades and, ultimately, universities. And on a one-to-one basis at that.

As an employer, I don't care 2 hoots where the candidate sitting in front of me comes from, and it is so very naive of anyone to think that if Tilia was that candidate, then, for some divine reason, I must prefer to hire Tilia, just because Tilia is from this or that university. Goodness!

While comparing universities is already an exercise in futility (more than that, it is downright silly), comparing systems takes the cake!!! It is the cherry on top of a silly putty.

Yet, it gets worse; Tilia knows of only one Australian university (and have chosen not to reveal its name), spends one year there (and therefore would not be aware if course contents are loaded on in later years), decides that that was representative of the UK system (no doubt relying on the colonial connection of 200 years ago), experiences just that one uni in the US, and appears completely enlightened as to their respective merits on a global scale. And this is the same person who extols the virtues of doing research before jumping to conclusions. These comments does not reflect on Tilia any more than it is a sad commentary on the Malaysian thinking culture, or lack thereof - it makes Malaysians appear senile at a young age.
The Good Lord did not decree that if a university is operating within one "system", however perceived, then it must do such and such and would be such and such. Unchanged. Forever. Tilia, Darshini, and others, how closed your minds are. Silicon Valley or KL, a closed mind might win an entry-level employment but would have problems scaling the heights of management.

Do I have a point? After such a long note, of course I have, and it is to stress that there is little profit to argue on the respective merits between universities, and certainly useless to champion any "system" at all. As human beings, we gravitate towards a system that is perceived to suit our personality, and may do well in it; but in attempting to take a product from a particular environment and champion it within the context of another environment, you are going to get "bullied", as someone puts it quite emotively and unfairly.

My daughter in NZ did the NZ equivalent of our O levels last year. Not only do they not allow you to fantasize about doing 19 subjects, the regulations there only allows 5 subjects and, if you are above average, the Dean may allow you an additional 6th subject. Yet my kids, who were top students here before going over a few years ago, could only get to bed about 11.00 pm, with the homework, research, etc, required to be done on just those 6 subjects. I can say, as a relieved father of about 50, that I can see they are developing into thinking people under the NZ system. So I think that the NZ system is good. But would I trumpet that their school and the NZ system is the best in the world? How in heaven's name could I know that? Nay, I may be getting old, but not senile. Not yet.

jien sing said...

to Anon,

yeah~ its so true~ one thing about life is that: doesnt matter where you go, it is your ability to make opportunities for yourself and appreciate whatever comes to you that counts...

itz just self-defeating to think that you're not from the best (or even the better) schools... if so, lots of students might as well be engage in a collective suicide~


Anonymous said...

Well, I hardly every post in this forum but guess I will this time as well.

I have sons doing Australian foundation and British A-levels so I will clarify by saying my observation will be based on those and what I said would be generalization but I suspect it would shed some light on how universities in both countries operate. And to avoid flame, these are only my opinion.

With Australian foundation, there were no-end amount of group projects that needs reading up, research including Net, critical thinking, evaluation, write-up and oral presentation and access to computer with Net connectivity practically a must.

On the other hand, the one taking A-level has none of that. Heck, he doesn’t even need a computer and that’s saying a lot. It’s more reminiscent of my old days of memorization and regurgitation.

So which is better? Well, in my opinion, they both have merits. With the Australian model, a good student would become more creative, innovation, independent and have better social skill like better ability to work as a team, all extremely desirable qualities. On the other hand, a poor student would be having none of those desirable qualities plus poor in knowledge.

With A-levels, the good student would be even more equipped with knowledge. Whether he could acquire the other desirable soft skills is another question. But a poor A-level student would at least have more knowledge then a poor Australian student.

Saying these reminded me of the old story about “giving someone a fish or teaching him to fish”. Australian version would be the later. And like many things in life, we wanted them all.

On the issue of Ivy leagues. Come on, let’s face it. If you are given the choice of Cambridge or an unknown university and cost is not an issue, which would you choose? My bet is that I know how 99% of people would choose.


Tiara said...

This whole "UK system is this" "US system is that" etc etc battle is silly. Even within the country you have vastly different systems.

There are unis that give grades and unis that give evaluations. Unis that are very theoritical and academic and unis that emphasize real-world skills through internships and cooperatives. Unis that are diverse and encourage international education and unis that are more local and tightknit. And so on and so forth.

There are some things that are rather representative of the countries - the US tends to have more alternative-style unis than any other country, Australian unis don't tend to have many funding opps for international undergrads, etc etc. But to GENERALIZE, when you have vast numbers of unis WITHIN one country that are polar opposites, is useless!

Silent Me Not AUthor 1 said...

Hi Tilia,

1) your FE class is an elective. i.e. 3/4 of the students doesn't know it.

2) MIT grad don't take classes on yoga, really. While MIT has some element of general ed, their technical electives are by far superior in comparison. that s purely due to the fact they get better students, better funding and better staff for its reputation.

3) taking gen ed doesn't make you inferior engineer, but american system did you no favor in comparison to, say IC, UNSW, UoSdyney graduate, in terms of technical competence.

4)golden gate bridge is designed by past american engineers, before the airy-fairy liberal art proponents took over. lol. it does need fixing though:

5) i personally acknowledge that there are many bright and talents people from the states, no doubt about that. I have met many of them too. The whole argument wasn't personal against you, but rather against the system that you worship.

Anonymous said...

I am Anon 02:11:00 PM.

I agree with HK's comments. Just follow your heart and work hard, wherever you are and whatever you are doing. But if you get fixated and goes into comparisons, you would be missing the trees for the woods; you thing you see the "bigger" picture, but this big picture is of no practical use. If you focus on the "trees", you may yet be able to make some use of it, however bad others might comment about its type of wood.

Taking the argument further, it is also of no critical importance that you do not get to do that dream course for one reason or another. Every graduate has about 40 active years after graduation, and your happiness, success or contentment for the rest of your life, and of others who are affected thereby, has little relevance to the course that got away, but has all to do with living to your fullest on a daily basis.

I know of too many doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers (you name it) who graduated in the course they had wanted all their lives, practice in what they are trained, and still ended up feeling shortchanged by life itself. To me, it always was clear - they shortchanged themselves with an exhausting preoccupation with the unattainable.

One last point on comparing university syllabi - they are just printed words. I should know; I graduated from 3 universities in 3 different countries, and what you read printed on the syllabi at the beginning of each academic year are always never followed to the letter. Within a same set of syllabus, you can have in different years different lecturers with differing abilities and interpretational tendencies. They also have differing views as to what parts of a syllabus are important, and hence should be emphasised, and what are not. So, what are we arguing about?

Simple really, but it does take a 50 year-old parent to tell you that.

tilia said...

The reason I wrote that email is because a lot of people in Malaysia have said to me and my family that the American degree is not good etc etc. I wanted to try to convince people that it has its merits and is worth considering. I have heard so many employers saying that they do not want American graduates because of their misconceptions of the American degree such as the one about only having to declare your major after two years and still being able to grduate in four. Imagine how bad people's impression of American universities must be if they are rude enough to say to my dad's face that going to an American university will make me an inferior engineer and a lot of people in Malaysia wont hire me. I work really hard and I am an honor student in SJSU. For people to continuously disregard your effort and hard work just because it is a non Ivy league American school is very hurtful. That's why I wrote the email.

Evidently a lot of people share the views of those aforementioned rude people. I was trying to say that when I compare my American to my Australian experience, the Australian one was not for me. I did not even consider the British one when picking universities because I dislike just taking one final exam. I feel that the final grade is not indicative of your true ability. To each his own, but the gist I was trying to get at was to convince students that maybe thinking about an American university, even if it isnt Ivy league, would be a worthwhile endeavor.

I do realise that I generalise greatly but I used my experiences as examples to illutrate opinions I have. I am not comparing universities one to one. It just turned out that way somehow in the comments.

Anyway, I was not trying to say that the American system is the best in the world. I was trying to say that it is good and to dispel some false conceptions about it. I was trying to convince the kind of people who insult my university and its system to my face that American graduates are on par with everyone else and should be considered fairly. That was the audience I was targeting. If you are not one of them, you can disregard what I have said.

Jonathan said...

Leave her alone. What are you, some intellectual rights police or sth? Cant bear to let slide the crime of a person a few decades younger than you expressing her PERSONAL and SUBJECTIVE opinions? It does take inferiority complex losers who probably did not get anything significant done in life to cling on to their statements with such fervour. Look, if you think you're just posting up your own opinion in response to tilia, you could have been A WHOLE LOT more civil about it. Pricks.

Anonymous said...

I am Anon 02:11:00 PM.

Tilia, as a parent who has tolerated all those "in your face" comments, including when I was about to send my kids to NZ, let me tell you that it does not matter what anyone else says. In life, your parents' comments and advice are the only ones that matter because, when push comes to shove, they are the only ones to stand with you; all the other commentators would not care a bit to lend a hand. Let them not distract you.

FYI, my brother-in-law is a US graduate. Although we laughed at the fact that one of his credit was tennis, he is so very entreprenuerial, and successful. He is much richer than I, if that is an important yardstick for you. On the other hand, I work for one of the richest man in the country, and he is a UK graduate. So, where would comparison lead us?

We live in a society where people feels the need to put down others just to feel good about themselves. You must understand that anyone who uses unkind, rude or vulgar words do so because they could not otherwise discharge the angst and anger within themselves. A person who uses hurtful comments in any context cannot ever meant well, and this is a lesson this 50 year-old would like to share with you.

To reiterate, my point, and HK's too, I believe, is that there is no profit comparing because it is meaningless and, on that basis, you should not even need to justify what you are doing and where. To the extent you were encouraging others along your direction, that is commendable, but you can see for yourself that in feeling the need to justify, you end up belittling other people's qualifications, and I am sure that was not what you started out to do, being yourself a recipient of such unkindness. With the effect, perhaps unintended, of telling those UK and Ossie graduates that theirs are no good. Or not good enough, for one reason or another.

As an employer, when a candidate sits in front of me, I tried to find out what he/she can do for me, and his/her family, financial, or academic backgrounds are all of little importance. That is the real world which you are going to have to survive in for the next 50 years or so.

There are tens and perhaps hundreds of universities in the US, so a person who is so dismissive of all of them could not possibly be your right employer, or even a good employer at that. A person who taints all US degrees with the same paintbrush can only have a mind closed as tight as the vaults of Fort Knox. They should be avoided, and their comments totally ignored. Politely, of course.

Those who know, knows that US degrees are as worthy of consideration as any, UK or otherwise; those who do not, their opinions do not matter. All the best to you, and may you always be well and happy.

Anonymous said...

yawn, another case of university apologists battling it out. the uk grad wants to think he is better and the us grad thinks he is better. the world as they say is getting flat and they both might end up working for some tycoon from china with a high school diploma.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tilia:
I am the anonymous poster of (3/27/2007 01:24:00 AM). As I mentioned in my last sentence, you should try to stay in the US. Since SJSU is a masters college, you may have problems finding a reasonable job back in Malaysia because of their mentality. If you are an honor student you should apply for graduate studies. As you already know, admissions into graduate school come with full assistantship and you should be able to complete PhD, if you survive, without a sen from your parents. In my time, I even have leftover money to send home to help with my nieces' tuition fees and angpows for Chinese New Year because we were not rich. Now, I see my graduate students buying cars. As I said, the higher you go, the more people will forget about your previous qualifications. Just work hard and make sure you do well in the GRE if you are applying for grad schools. This time, try getting into one of the top two tiers (122 univ to choose from) of the universities in US and you would do OK. Also remember this, because of affirmative actions, being a girl in Science & Engineering enjoys certain privilege in hiring. Being already in the US, you stand a much better chance to join a graduate program than somebody applying from UM in Malaysia. That is really ironic, actually. To see people with A's tripping over themselves trying to get into local univ. and the people who laugh last will most likely those who have no recourse but to go overseas. Don't worry about what you did or did not learn because those will be nothing compared to what you would learn in graduate school. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

There should be no argument(s) here. The main point of the original statement was that Tilia just wanted to inform the author of this blog of the US education system as a one to one correspondence. She didn't say that he US education system was better at all. She was just saying that it was better for her. First of all Silent, just stop arguing. FEA is taught in engineering at SJSU in the Structural anlysis class.

"One last point on comparing university syllabi - they are just printed words. I should know; I graduated from 3 universities in 3 different countries, and what you read printed on the syllabi at the beginning of each academic year are always never followed to the letter. Within a same set of syllabus, you can have in different years different lecturers with differing abilities and interpretational tendencies. They also have differing views as to what parts of a syllabus are important, and hence should be emphasised, and what are not. So, what are we arguing about?"

Anon made a great point. Every professor at any college/university/private institution, will always have a different syllabus. Don't forget that the syllabus is a very brief overview of the class content. SO perhaps FEA was considered a subset of one of the larger concepts in Structural Analysis.

Secondly, to the anon 50+ yr. old guy who wrote this.

"Incredible, isn't it, how we go on and on and on commenting on how great is that university we graduated from. I suspect Darshini and Tilia were brought up in Malaysia up to high school levels, my suspicion being based on their manifestation of that deeply rooted propensity of Malaysians to compare grades and, ultimately, universities. And on a one-to-one basis at that."

So...what exactly is your point? Is it not true that even in other countries people are competitive comparing grades/marks and universities? Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of families always compare themselves to other people. (I.e. wealth, education, job/career status, etc. etc.)

Again they weren't saying their university was the best.

"The Good Lord did not decree that if a university is operating within one "system", however perceived, then it must do such and such and would be such and such. Unchanged. Forever. Tilia, Darshini, and others, how closed your minds are. Silicon Valley or KL, a closed mind might win an entry-level employment but would have problems scaling the heights of management."

What did the "Good Lord" decree then? And where do you get this thought of Closed minds? Was it not made apparent that maybe the original message was to inform and was not to say that the US degree was better than the British degree?

If it seems like I'm attacking you. I am. If you are gonna be rude and try to gang up on someone, make sure they aren't making a point.

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dulcinea said...

I don't necessarily think it matters where you go. I was given a choice to go to both Ivy Leagues and top UK unis... I went to the UK because my parents had sentimental reasons(??!!) Till today, heaven knows if I made the right choice...

But what matters is what you make out of a university education and whether you're maximising the system you are in. Number of modules, grading systems, assessment standards are minor issues. You don't get a job interview if you've gone through a good system at a top university but failed to recognise the need to work hard and make the system work in your favour.

Let people have their biases, if it makes them feel better. Someone is always going to snub your education, job, house, car etc.

Anonymous said...

I will like to state that SJSU has a much larger undergraduate system as compared to most top notched universities in America (As much as 3.5times the size compared to eg Harvard or Stanford). Furthermore, SJSU may have been more highly inclined towards industrial or techological subjects thus producing more graduates that suit the purpose of Silicon Valley. However, this does not mean that SJSU is inferior to other universities but just that I would shun at jumping at conclusion of believing that SJSU graduates outclass those from any other universities based on this statement.

Silent Me Not AUthor 1 said...

from a rational discussion, it leads to emotional argument. as per all malaysians discussions and debate, when one "older" person present his/her points, you will call it bullying. when it's a healthy comparison, you will call it polemic. when it's a simple comparison between apple and apples (university system in this case), all the bystanders would just threw in and claimed that it doesn't matter. of course in the bigger picture it doesn't matter, but that does mean the discussion shall not take place in the first place? It's sad that malaysians like us, choose to "terima la saje" (accept it), and live with the fact that we are in our optimal outcome. As far as i can see, the initial email was a sharing of her personal experience in order to make a general conclusion. although the author did apologize for the generalization, the debate is still on the point of difference between the systems. not whether bill gates will earn more (he is not even a graduate). another weakness in malaysians' mentality is, we like to argue using extreme cases. indeed many rich people are not even university grad (why bother writing a blog about "education in universities" then.


anyway, if the email author only intend to remind her potential employers that americans graduate is worth its worth >> don't write an email complaining about the perception, but act to change the perception by proving herself (at work). for the silly employers who generalize american graduates (any graduates for that matter, even those from uitm), you re bound to limit yourself to a small pool of talent, and that's just silly.

Peace out.

I am not that much older than tilia. :)

Tiara said...

Hi Tilia,

I hope I'm not one of the people bullying you! I too have been looked down for some rather unorthodox choices I've made, and I understand and agree with you when you say that comments like "The US system isn't any good" is unwarranted and belittling.

Like some of the Anons above have said, though, in the long run it doesn't really matter what uni or where you came from. What really matters more is what you decide to do with your life wherever you are. You could be a graduate of the US or UK or Australia or Uzbekistan or Russia or Sudan or wherever - that doesn't automatically tie you to a certain lifestyle. It's just one aspect of your life.

Where do you then move on to?

Anonymous said...

"indeed many rich people are not even university grad"

I have often heard this argument about some of the richest but old man being not even able to write their own name. IMO, this argument has a major flaw.

During these "old" man earlier years in the 40's, 50's & 60's etc, there aren't many university graduate in the 1st place so everyone more or less started off on a level field.

But in our modern time, many people are university graduate so if you aren't one, the field are no longer level for you. You started life with a disadvantage. My 2 sen.

Anonymous said...

This is silly.

First of all, the perception that US system or UK system is better is unfounded. We cannot really make an apple-to-apple comparison. Each one has their own merits.

Also it is not fair to narrow the focus on CEOs to judge universities' merits. If a person does not become the CEO, does it means his degree is no good? What about the best architects in the world, the best bridge designers in the world, etc? What are their qualifications and from what universities? Are we looking into that statistics?

Some people doesn't really want to be the CEO. That does not mean his degree is no good. They could be technically extremely good and just wanted to work for people, because maybe they are happy doing it.

We also cannot conclude and say, ah Intel recruits so many graduates from such and such university, so the university must be good, eventhough the name Intel implies superiority in microprocessor designs. Because there could be diplomatic linkages between the universities and corporations.

This world is far more complex than we know it. Sometimes statistics can be deceitful.

the deLicious Word said...

“So, yeah, in Princeton there’s a great focus on undergraduate education. There’s no business school, no law school …”

I was trying to highlight the distinctive features of Princeton to a Malaysian friend who wanted to know how the university was different...


the above is an excerpt from a blog entry on comparing university education systems.

Read more at my blog (

Anonymous said...

I think in terms of technical knowledge they are comparable but ithe US system is much more amenable to providing an infrastructure that supports students pursuing their interests, inside or outside their fields. I was able to travel to Costa Rica and resarch obesity trends amongst indigenous peoples there and also live in in a liberian refugee camp in Ghana to teach science education.

I also find that in terms of scientific resarch, the exposure that one gets as an undergraduate in the US is much more comprehensive. Ive been working in the lab for four years with a professor who was the first to publish a known structure of a virus. Ive written grants, attended conferences,and im writing a senior thesis and working on publishing a paper. Its exciting as ive yet to get a degree. I also know of friends who have made findings in their undergraduate years and received support from their faculty and unis to go ahead and market those ideas.
Aside from taking classes that engage me in discussion on Kant and Kierkegaard (its more impressive if youre not in PPE, admittedly. But for a scince geek, it was definitely an eye opener), i find that the liberal arts system is ingenious because it stipulates a basic foundation but where you take it from there is up to you. Some people may choose to become experts and take graduate level courses. Others decide that they are fine with just a basic engineering degree but are also interested in business and therefore decide to take more classes in that area.
Whatever it is, its up to you to take the drivers seat in deciding. Ive been in one-on-one seminars with professors along with other grad students. Ive also taken survey art history courses where everyone from first years to local residents come to listen. And i think that i have benefited tremendously from both. After all, arts and science are not necessarily separate. I once had a professor (British, incidentally) who managed to find a reference to Alice in Wonderland in every single lecture on organic chemistry :)
In the end its not about tabulating the amount you have learnt or even where all the CEOs come from. Its about what you got out of the whole experience, inside and outside the classroom and from what i can tell based on conversations with friends in the UK, i find i prefer my little school in the northeast :) But to each his own..

San said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

at the end of the day it's not just only about where you got your degree from but also what you did when you were there and also what you do with your degree. there's no such thing as the best university for everything.

jerng said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jerng said...

I was going to post a comment but GOOD GRIEF after reading all of that schlock above I must first say Tony & Kian Ming, your blog's a success!!

My original comment...

'Better' or 'Worse' is indeed an over-simplification. Instead of ranking universities on just one scale, we should instead use a multi-variate analysis. Split the problem into its component dimensions. Think of utility in terms of vectors. If you're going to say that education system X is good, then qualify it properly by saying what it is good for.

If you want to optimise your abilities to be an engineer, go to a school that makes good engineers. If you want to optimise your abilities to be a good manager, go to a school that makes good managers. Liberal arts degrees are specifically designed to optimise students for generalist, jack-of-many-trades positions.

The very concept of 'liberal arts' comes from the Greek tradition of training 'free men' (i.e. anyone who wasn't a slave - though unfortunately, most of them were in fact male) to have certain basic skills. These included a base of three arts (skills), Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric (modern translation: language, computer science, and salesmanship) and a second set of four arts, Arithmatic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy (modern translation: mathematics, visual art, acoustic arts, and geography). Now the whole point of this was that if you had JUST these skills, you could then teach yourself... just about anything else.

The progression of the liberal arts tradition since ancient Greece is long and frazzeled. There are of course, parallels to be found in Asia, particularly among the Hindu and Buddhist thought traditions. I spent most of my four undergraduate years in the US studying this, and it was a lot of fun. I mean, being on financial aid basically means that you GET PAID to go to school. And the liberal arts schools are very nice schools. I was the kid who would take an empty crate to the library and lug twenty to thirty books back to my room to skim over the weekend. There's no better, faster, way to learn lots and lots of stuff. It's a pity there are no good libraries in Malaysia. Now I work in KL, and whenever I research a topic, I have to spend a whole week's bloody salary at Kinokuniya...

My own approach to uni was a bit unconventional. By the time I was about 11-years-old I had already figured that I could be happy living on about RM600 a month in KL. So I never thought that going to uni was really necessary in order to help me achieve my er... ultimate ambitions. I just wanted to know how things worked, and I figured that there was plenty of data to work with even without going to school. But hey, if someone else was going to pay for it, why the hell not just go anyway.

So I happily applied as an English Lit major, switched to a Music and Bio-Chemistry double major in my sophomore year, got bored, and switched to Economics, got bored and considered Mathematics, but finally decided to just take Philosophy because it would give me the most free time.

Since then I've managed to get work experience in KL at a government think tank, at an MNC consulting firm, and in a local investment bank. I consider these first three years of my 'working life' to be my 'commercial' education. You know you can sign on for those ICAEW apprenticeships that pay you to get an accounting charter, without any prior background right?

Hehehe. Generally, I vote American.. education systems, not political systems.. because I don't think I could have gotten the same amount of part-time job experience while studying - in fields as varied as film making, operations management, and web design - if I had gone to the UK. And I think almost certainly, I wouldn't have been able to work as closely with faculty members on college committees that administered the school's academic, social, and other policies on a week-to-week basis.

If anyone's interested, I can give some advice on applying to liberal arts colleges in general. I also hold free tutorials in formal logic, cognitive science, and organising information. Usually in Kino where I can just walk around and point at stuff... hehe. Call me. 016 235 2931

Anonymous said...

Haha, as usual the US, UK and Oz are busily engaged in disputes, while the tiny little Kiwi (ie NZ) are happily staying nuetral and non-aligned.

I am doing my PhD here at the UoCanterbury. Including my undergrad years, I would have gone through the Kiwi system for 8 years now. Shall I blog and champion for NZ Unis? Nah, she'll be fine without the need for me to do so.

Why? Coz I am seeing a lot of Petronas sponsored students in campus nowadays. UoCanterbury must have hit the right note to get Petronas's money. This speaks for itself.

My friends, come to NZ to indulge in a 100% pure NZ education!

Anonymous said...

I have great respect for graduates of the University of Canterbury, NZ. There are not many of them around, but those I have employed seem to have been well trained.

Anonymous said...

Ehm, the point is: quality is more important than quantity isn't it? Just like eating rice, those who can digest well derive their energy from it but those who can't feel bloated (Chinese Idiom). My parents always say that the same kind of rice can breed 100 kind of different characters. Taking the analogy, the same kind of Uni can produce different kind of graduates. Just because you are a graduate of so-called elite Uni does not say much more than that fact that you possess a piece of paper perceived to be more valuable. Beyond that it’s anyone’s games (guess) - Branded rice does not necessarily produce brained object and vice versa. Furthermore things change with time, today’s elite Uni may not be elite tomorrow and vice versa.

Think of China and India – the under-developed, bicycle infested, overpopulated countries are now apples in most MNC’s eyes. Who could have imagined this many years ago? Undeniably the centres of attraction and activity are shifting from the oldie powers (eg US, UK) to new emerging powers (ie Chindia). While you guys are busy arguing which oldie Unis are the best, be prepared and do not be surprised that suddenly any Chindia Unis should become the next top elite Uni.

Confidence is great but humility is not bad either – don’t be too overboard, if not you will be eating your humble pies one day soon.

On a more serious note, since 2006 the NZ Government has reduced the international PhD tuition fees from more than NZD 20,000 ++ a year to about NZD 5,000, the same amount as domestic students. This is recognition from the government on the contributions of PhD research students and more importantly to up the ante on attracting more PhD researchers, and hopefully more skilled migrants in the long run. So those interested in PhD study, please consider NZ. UoCanterbury is a strong research-based university particularly in Engineering. As I said, there are many Petronas sponsored students (U/G) here nowadays. Besides these, there are also individual M’sian PhD student here on NZ scholarships (I am one of them). There is long relationship between M’sian and various NZ Unis that started from the Colombo Scholarships in the 60s. A few of M’sian (ex)-Ministers are NZ graduates, such as Dato’ Sulaiman Daud, Dato’ Fong Chan Onn etc. For a start please visit Tony/Kian Ming – would you highlight this please – an alternate route for quality PhD research? Thanks.

Silent Me Not AUthor 1 said...

the anonymous phd student from UoCanterbury.....

care to flick me an email?

click on my nick for my email add.

Cheers. :)

Anonymous said...



Silent Me Not AUthor 1 said...

Sepang High Institute of Technology (SHIT) is even better. :)

anonymous...not keen to link up?

lol said...



Surely you mean it beatS oxford, cambridge, harvard, UTAR, UM, Monash, UITM.

Grammer is such a tricky thing. By the way I'm an Imperial College student. You left my university out. I feel slighted. =)

Anonymous said...

Hi "silent me not author 1"

Got as far as your webpage but just can't locate your email? Huh pardon my ignorance...

Anonymous said...

Hi "silent me not author 1"

It's me again, the anonymous Canterbury student above.

If keen, contact me at wickedwing'at'

Note: replace 'at' with @

Marcus said...

We have an interesting debate going on about this subject at the following link:

Come join the discussion.

Anonymous said...

So good topic really i like any post talking about Ancient Greece but i want to say thing to u Ancient Greece not that only ... you can see in Ancient Greece The fourth century and more , you shall search in Google and Wikipedia about that .... thanks a gain ,,,