Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Oxford University: Should I Apply? (II)

Following the first post on some of the the typical questions that usually act as "barriers" to Malaysians applying to some of the top universities in the world, the following actually provides some nuggets of my personal experience at Oxford University.

I'm never going to be able to write my entire pre-application, my 3-year stay, my degree programme and other experiences in just one blog post (even if it's a long one like this). Hence, the focus of my writing will be on the nature of teaching and learning that's unique to Oxford and other similar institutions - which may be attractive to many of you out there. For the other readers of the blog from these institutions (I know you are out there), please feel free to add your personal experience, either to my personal email (which I'll then "re-publish") or in the comments column below.

Quick note: My experience below may have in a large part, to do with the degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) which I have taken. So students reading other subjects, particularly the science subjects will clearly have a different "experience". :)

1. Class Size

One of the most important facets of some of the top universities around the world is the small tutorial class sizes. Whilst in the first year, the class sizes may be as large as 8-10 persons, in my subsequent years, the class sizes were often no more than 3 persons.

In fact for certain subjects which are electives, for e.g., I took "Development Economics", I had 1-to-1 tutorial sessions. The small class sizes had certain implications for students. For example, it will be very difficult to evade doing your homework readings for it'll look really stupid when you are attempting to carry out a discussion with your tutor. You will obviously receive a lot of "personal attention", wanted or otherwise. :)

In addition, the small class sizes will ensure that you will have to speak up in the class. Asian students have a tendency to be timid, quiet and fairly non-participative in the classroom. However, when the classroom is only the size of 2 students, there's really very little space to hide from the tutor. I have always been regarded as a fairly vocal student in primary and secondary schools. However, when I was at Oxford, my Economics tutor actually wrote in one of my term reports that I was too quiet and needed to participate more during tutorial discussions!

That certainly plays an important part in honing one's quick thinking skills as well as the ability to express one's thoughts in the clearest manners.

2. College vs University

One of the oft quoted unique features about Oxbridge universities is the fact that the universities are basically made up of a cluster of semi-independent colleges. A description provided by the Oxford University website is quoted here:
One of the many advantages of studying at Oxford is the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of a large international University whilst living in a smaller college community. Your college will be the focus of your academic life, where you will attend weekly tutorials, for most of your time in Oxford. Your college will also provide you with accommodation and food at reasonable prices, as well as being the centre for your social life, offering entertainment, sports, music and drama facilities and events.
Colleges and Halls
  • select their own undergraduate students;
  • are responsible for students' tutorial teaching and welfare;
  • provide accommodation, meals, common rooms, libraries, sports and social facilities and pastoral care for their students.
The University
  • determines the content of the courses;
  • organises lectures and seminars;
  • provides a wide range of resources for teaching and learning in the form of libraries, laboratories, museums, computing facilities;
  • sets and marks examinations;
  • awards degrees.

I was enrolled in Keble College (picture above), which is quite large by Oxford standards with some 400 undergraduate and 150 postgraduate students. Yes, that's "large". :) Something that many students are not used to, is also the fact that most student stay for at least 2 years, in the college itself. To get to 8 am tutorials in the morning, you just need to wake up at 7.45, wash up, gulp down some breakfast, and make a 2 minute dash to the tutor's room. Yes, most of the tutors stay in the college as well :)

3. Lectures vs Tutorials

The most unique thing I find about my degree programme at Oxford, for better or worse, is the "disjoint" between lectures and tutorials. Lectures are run by the university, while tutorials are managed by the colleges. And with some 30 colleges managing tutorial schedules, you will find that most of the time, the lectures do not "jive" with the tutorial subject schedules. Hence, you might find yourself attending lectures on particular topics in the first term, but the tutorials for the same subject only begins in the third term. And of course, vice-versa.

Due to the fact that tutorials are of prime importance, lectures often take a back seat. That usually means that as the term goes by, I'll be attending less and less lectures. I won't be exaggerating to say that I probably attended an average of maybe only 2-3 hours worth of lectures a week throughout my entire course!

4. Tutorials

Tutorials are probably the most important aspect of one's academic experience at Oxford. Tutorials are scheduled to be twice a week, one for each subject which is being taken for the term. There are 3 terms a year, and 8 weeks for each term. So, every term, I'll be having 16 tutorials a term, 8 on say, "Organisational Economics" and another 8 on say, "Moral Philosophy (Ethics)".

So what's so tough about the tutorials, besides the fact that it's a tiny class? In most universities I'm aware of, tutorials are where the tutors will do some "teaching", students will be taking notes and they may be required to do some question-and-answer type homework. Over at Oxford, threre's little or no formal teaching done during tutorials.

What's typically done is that all students will have to prepare an essay on a particular topic prior to the tutorial session. The essay question and lengthy reading list would have been provided in the previous week. The first week's tutorial came as quite a shock for me because I was to prepare an essay on the "failure" of French Fourth Republic with absolutely no clue about French political history (I would have thought Charles de Gaulle was a character from Asterix!) - no prior tips, lectures, classes or preparation by the tutors. With only the reading list as a guide, we'll pilfer through the relevant books to churn out an essay in preparation for the tutorial in the following week.

Depending on the tutor, you might be required to read the essay out aloud during the tutorials and open yourself to some serious vivisection by the tutor and fellow tutorial mates during the 1-2 hour sessions. Put in some rubbish, and you are done for! The exercise is repeated twice a week, and that means a total of 16 essays every term. That's a lot of essays to write, considering that most universities only require 1-2 term essays (albeit, likely to be longer ones) handed in as "projects".

What's the ultimate effects of such a tutorial system?
  • It's probably the ultimate version of anti-spoon feeding as there's actually hardly any "teaching", especially since I (and I'm pretty sure I attended more lectures than my fellow coursemates) attended only a minimal amount of lectures. Everything is to be discovered on your own through all the relevant reading materials. Tutorials are only meant more as "discussion" to ensure that you are on the right track, and to point out certain more pertinent points on a particular topic. It makes you ultimately resourceful.

  • The system makes your brain work the hardest because, very often, you start from absolute zero to becoming almost exam ready for that particular topic, all within a period of one week.

  • Your writing techniques and skills improves tremendously as you are required to produce top quality essays in the shortest possible time (usually just a couple of hours, because you'd have spent the rest of the prior week gathering and browsing the reading materials). It certainly helps with maintaining a blog like this while having a busy day job! And I can tell you from experience, this is one of the greatest assets to possess when writing reports, analyses, presentations and proposals.

  • Your reading skills as well as the ability to sieve out key and relevant information is honed to near perfection, because some 70% (or so) of reading materials are not directly relevant (or are repetitive) and it's important to be able to tell them apart from the relevant points early. Otherwise, you'll never finish the reading list (some books on their own may take 3 weeks to complete!). You have only one week after all, not to mention that you'd still have to produce the essay.

  • The active tutorial classes and the openness of debate allows one to hone your expression and debating skills, for not only you need to know what you are talking about, you will also need to know how to express it such that your tutor and course mates can understand you.
For some, such a system will be extremely stressful for practically everything is reliant on the self, and there's really a lot of reading and writing to do. On the flip side, and one of the key reasons why I really really enjoyed my time over at Oxford is that the system provided me total independence to how I want to do my work, organise my time and most importantly, the space to "think", for there's only 5-6 hours worth of official lesson time a week (average of 3 hours of lectures, and 2-3 hours of tutorials).

The system is a complete contrast to say, National University of Singapore (NUS) which I had the privilege of attending for 2 weeks before I took off to Oxford back in 1991. The time-table at NUS is almost perpectually packed where students rush from lecture halls to tutorial rooms and back to lecture halls on a daily basis. If I don't recall wrongly, there's some 24-30 hours of official lesson time a week for a Bachelor of Arts degree at NUS (and they have longer term time of 10-12 weeks).

This is not to say that the Oxford tutorial system should be adopted by all universities. Certain students perform well in the NUS-type environment, while people like me definitely feels more "liberated" with the Oxford system. I know that in NUS, students are likely to be "screaming" that a lecturer is not doing his/her job if he/she did not provide lecture notes or handouts to accompany the lectures. He or she may even be reprimanded. However, at Oxford, no lecturer worth his salt will provide handouts during a lecture for you will be expected to listen and pick out the relevant points for your own consumption.

So at the end of the day, if you have a keen interest in challenging your thinking and writing skills with a lot of self-effort, then Oxbridge universities will definitely be the place for you.

5. Extra-Curricular Activities

Contrary to popular opinion that Oxbridge is all work and no play, it has an extremely vibrant non-academic environment. You are bound to find a society or interest group among more than 400, to match your own whims and fancies. If you can't find one that matches your interest, you are encouraged to set up one yourself. Yes, there are clubs dedicated towards the resurrection of King Arthur's Camelot.

With only 5-6 hours of official lesson time a week, I thoroughly enjoyed myself with various sports from rowing for a term, representing the college in the very active university hockey league over 2+ years as well as badminton and table-tennis. I took part in clubs such as the Laissez Faire Society and of course, the obligatory functions at the Oxford Malaysia Club (OMC) and Oxford University Malaysia & Singapore Association (OUMSA). Sometimes, I actually wonder back to try to figure out how I actually found time to study!

As highlighted at the start of this post, the above are just be nuggets of my experience during my 3 eventful and thoroughly enjoyable years at Oxford University. I hope to provide readers, and in particular, hopeful students a glimpse of life at Oxford and encourage more applications from Malaysians to these universities. I'm certain that I'm not the only one who has enjoyed myself, and I would encourage fellow alumnus as well as current students there to share your perspectives of the experience at Oxford.

The next update will be on the application process. A gentle reminder that the closing date of applications will be on the 15th October, for 2006 undergraduate entry. You need not wait for my update, go check out the Oxford admission site yourself!


Anonymous said...

Hi Tony

First of all, I would like extend my heartiest congratulations to you for maintaining what I personally considered to be the foremost blog on education issues in malaysia. I have followed this blog since its humble beginnings and I must say it has been a great ride and wonderful learning experience.

I am a third year in Oxford and if you don't mind, I'd like post a link to this particularly thorough and well written article for reference by prospective applicants to Oxford. Our forum is at www.oumc.org.uk/forum and the current committee and past alumni are more than happy to answer any questions specific to Oxford albeit from a student's perspective of course.

I think you have addressed the major selling points of an Oxford education well. As fond as I am of Oxford, I think I should mention two (out of many)critical issues that it faces at the moment.

The first is the lack of funds to maintain its world class position. The new vice-chancellor John Hood faces difficulties in securing the much needed support from the university's Congregation in order to pursue his planned reforms. In terms of student spending and scholarship, I am curious regarding Oxford position in comparison with the other top Ivy Leaguers. I assume that Cambridge faces the same predicament.

The tutorial system or supervision as they call it in Cambridge is the distinguishing feature in the two premier universities. A common concern among students and tutors is that this may be sacrificed in pursuit of fiscal prudence.

Currently the university is heavily reliant on foreign undergraduate and post graduate students to generate cashflow as we pay the full nine yards.

The second issue is regarding the inherently inert and inefficient university administration. As you rightly pointed out, the university is a loose confederation of independent colleges with their own representatives in the university version of parliament called the congregation. Decentralisation of executive power in the administration has made it difficult to govern.

Unless the university institute much needed reforms, I fear Oxford may slipped further from the best. Hopefully this will not be the case.

That said, Oxford is one of the best and Malaysians should be encouraged to apply.

For some reason Cambridge gets twice the number of students a year than we do. A branding issue perhaps? Is it because Cambridge is traditionally better known for science related subjects and more prominent South East Asian politicians are Cantabs. A question that does need an answer.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious of engineering or computer science student's experience in the top unis... do you know any links ?

Anonymous said...


Pfft... Cambridge has twice the number of Malaysian students because it's easier to get into! Everybody knows that! :P

Jerng said...

Trainofthoughts has some good points. Tony you're doing a great job with this blog

I want to offer one caveat though, about the tutorial system.

If I am not mistaken, the tutorial system is one of the identifying features of the British higher education system (at least, at the premium tier), however, this is rarely the case in the USA. In the USA, undergraduates at 'top' universities might often find themselves being lectured by graduate students, who haven't even obtained a masters degree in their subject. Tutorials might not exist.

While I was an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college in the States, I made it a point to investigate how the college operated at various levels besides student body dynamics (support/infrastructural, commercial/administrative, faculty/political). Anyone who has the opportunity to live at an institution of higher education for several years should look into these things. The relationship between academia and marketplace is facinating!

Jerng said...

... Additionally... the best 'education' in the USA might be found at smaller liberal arts colleges with no graduate departments, simply because students get the personal attention of their Professors. For example...

Reed College has nearly the best 'undergraduate academic experience' in the USA; it is structured like oxbridge, with tutorials; and it is NOT LISTED on many official rankings, because it actively denies the accuracy of numerically-based ranking systems. Reed College slashes the commercial sector for turning 'education' into an industry, and in turn websites like US News and World report downgrade its Reed College in its rankings! This is one example of how politics, and market forces distort available information about education in our world.

St. John's College is another example of 'great education' with 'little respect for the marketplace'. Every student at SJC takes the same courses, which is a course in reading books from the Western canon of literature, science, philosophy, etc. In a seminar (tutorial) style, they read books, do math, study music, and do laboratory science for 4 years. They learn calculus by reading Newton. There are no special 'majors' at SJC. This sort of thing is said to be, 'training in nothing, but preparation for everything'.

Anyone looking for the best undergraduate education in the USA, might do well to consult the vast body of literature which has appeared as a result of the demand for more information about colleges in the States. Websites such as Colleges That Change Lives (http://www.ctcl.com) and the Princeton Review (http://www.princetonreview.com) are pretty good, and there are many many many others, such as the Students' Guide to Colleges : The Definitive Guide to America's Top 100 Schools Written by the Real Experts--the Students Who Attend Them (http://studentsguidetocolleges.com).

If you are in Malaysia, just go to Kinokuniya or Borders (and perhaps some other bookstores). There you will find the print version of this reference material. MACEE has some books. From what I hear, they have ok college counseling services, but are not fantastic if you are looking to get the very best education, because typical counselors are not built to help with this sort of thing.

Jerng said...

... one final bit of info, for those interested in US education...


Go to this link for a list of college guide books. See the sidebar entitled 'Related Listmania'. Read as many of the comments as you can.

Content aggregators, such as the commentary on bookstore websites and various other forums, are an excellent place to 'virtually' visit that environment you are considering.

John Lee said...

I'm surprised nobody's mentioned Deep Springs College in California yet. It has a rather small endowment and only awards Associate Degrees (which means you have to transfer to another institution after two years to gain your Bachelor's), but the education is helluva good. It's a rural ranch, and all students receive a full scholarship; in return, they work on the ranch. The school is mostly self-governed (which means the students by and large run it; one issue they contemplate every year is whether to make the institution co-ed, as it is currently only open to male students). The average class size is four, and there is a heavy emphasis on writing and public speaking. Many transfer students from Ivy League universities have said there's no way their education there could compare to the one they get at Deep Springs. (The website is http://www.deepsprings.edu.)

As for the difference between big prestigious universities in the US and LACs, it tends to vary from what I understand. Some bigger LACs are still very prestigious, such as Swarthmore and Dartmouth (Dartmouth is actually an Ivy League university, but because of its undergraduate focus, many consider it similar to an LAC). Another thing is that while many big universities (Harvard is one) rely on graduate students to teach, there are a few that emphasise undergraduate education, like Princeton.

Anonymous said...

What to say... top US schools especially those small-medium size institutions and unknown to most Malaysians has some of the most vibrant learning communities. The term tutorial seems like such a sophomoric concept. I prefer seminars. Graduate Seminars.

-- Old Man

Anonymous said...

Very interesting and helpful for all international students - thanks. I've posted a link to the article on http://www.how2uk.com