It is a rare and wonderful privilege to have to choose between Harvard/Stanford and Oxford/Cambridge. It is a difficult choice, obviously, as none of the Ivies nor Stanford can be said to be clearly superior to Oxbridge. And vice versa. In fact, no one will say that any one of these four universities is better than any of the other three.
So, assuming that you have to choose, how do you decide? University rankings tell part of the story, but not all. Whatever one may say about the positives or negatives of university ranking systems, the fact is that Oxford and Cambridge along with Harvard and Stanford always comes in the top half-dozen of any ranking. So the rankings are not much help and give only hints.
As for the quality of education, it is not really a “which is better?” question: while Oxbridge stress depth, Harvard/Stanford emphasize breadth. Another way to hazard a guess about the relative merits and demerits of these top-class institutions is to take a look at what students say. We did exactly that: we took a look at opinion snippets and anecdotal evidence from some students, past, present, and even future, expressed on online forums.
Students are what make a university, and Harvard/Stanford students have characteristics that distinguish them from Oxbridge students and vice versa. Harvard students don’t hide the fact that they are ambitious and “intend to go places,” though you may not get this juicy morsel of information in small talk. Because small talk doesn’t come naturally to them, if some Quorans are to be believed.
One Quoran says that because of the British system of specialization right from secondary school, he found that Cambridge undergraduates had only studied one field and hence couldn’t talk about a wide range of subjects. But this was different with graduate-level students. But whatever the level, Cambridge students on the whole could not only indulge in lively banter but they seemed to prefer it to pretentious coffee-house discussions about artsy ideas.
An HBS student says how she was constantly told in her first few weeks that she should feel proud at having been admitted to the prestigious business school. She already was, but couldn’t help feeling that this type of self-aggrandizement would be considered in bad taste in the UK, though it may be quite natural in the US. One Quoran remarks that at Cambridge, students tend to display their intelligence through academic pursuits rather than their “calculated career ambitions.” Cambridge has idealistic students who are more prone to self-depreciation than self-promotion.
Academic pursuits apart, Oxbridge students are better travelled, unlike Harvard students from the US, some of whom may not have left their country, until their postgraduate program gives them a chance to do so, according to a former student on Quora.
Harvard and Stanford students would be more concerned about their careers and Oxbridge students more about the pursuit of learning, according to an answer. True to this belief, the smartest kids in Harvard/Stanford can be heard planning their own enterprises even while the smartest at Oxbridge are thinking aloud about going for their doctoral degrees.
Ask anyone who is staying on in Oxbridge for postgraduation and they will tell you that they are doing so because they love the dreamy spires of Oxford or the pubs of Cambridge and the great traditions of their universities. Meanwhile, people going to Harvard and Stanford would be heard saying they want to meet the smartest people in their fields, participate in cutting edge tech, and meet their career goals. Enough said: professional success is ever at the top of the minds for Harvard/Stanford students.
Nerds are not looked up to so much in Cambridge, but you find people who pretend they didn’t have a care in the world for what’s going on in class, only to ace it at the exams. On the other hand, at Harvard, you can find hands raised for any question to the class that the professor may have, in what is part of the famous US class-participation model. Students don’t feel they have to wait for exam day to show off their knowledge.
Let transatlantic comparisons be for a moment, Cambridge students also differ from their Oxford counterparts. Someone commenting on an online forum quips that in a room full of fellows, the Oxford students would think they own the place and the Cambridge guys wouldn’t give a damn who owns the place. Cambridge pupils are more focused on academics while Oxford students are sensitive to social status and socializing. How you get along with them on the campus depends on who you are.
You cannot escape the supervising stare of your “dons” at Oxbridge, but at Harvard/Stanford, you can get away not having much to do with your professors directly in your four years there. But the stares are well worth it: thanks to the interaction with their scholar-professors, Oxbridge students tend to be more intellectually polished and more able to deal with complex subjects. They also turn out better public speakers than their Stanford counterparts, according to some views.
For the same reason, Oxbridge are better places for students who need to be supervised. The professors take their students under their wings, as it were. At Oxford, the tutorial system enables a student to have 1:1 or 1:2 interaction with professors. Students are paired with tutors who can best handle the student’s interest areas.
The greater professor-student interaction also paves the way for good recommendation letters to students from their professors, helpful for future higher education and employment.
How the academic systems at both Harvard and Cambridge work depends on the attitude and approach of students and how they use their time at university. Serious students learn a lot, and not-so-committed ones manage to scrape through. Both Harvard and Cambridge are research institutions that don’t really involve undergraduates in research.
Someone says that undergraduation is better done in the US because of the flexibility of courses and because of the forgiving credential system. You can change your major during the first two years and take focused classes in the last two. You can take subjects outside your major and see how well you do and whether to continue.
According to some online-forum users, the differences reflect a few of the characteristics of the academic systems in the US and the UK. Harvard tries to give the student an interdisciplinary, well-rounded education. You have freedom to choose your courses from many. You don’t need to choose a major straightaway, and only half your courses need to be in your major; fewer, if you don’t want an honors degree.
Harvard is extremely classroom-focused with a rigid curriculum and a check-all-the-boxes approach rather than a “cerebral amble,” as one former student puts it. As grades are based on participation, homework, and exams, students work hard over longer periods of time.
A Quoran points out that at Oxbridge, applicants need to apply usually for a specific course at a specific college and may be able to go to the college that best fits their subjects of interest. If someone wants to study a specific author from French literature, for example, he can get the chance to work with a world-renowned expert on that author’s works. Oxford has in place a specific in-depth curriculum from the word go while Cambridge has built up a wider curriculum from which students can pick modules and specialize.
With their majoring and minoring system, US universities allow students to choose a major subject and minor subjects that don’t have to be related to their majors at all, although some universities have some restrictions. For students with wide-ranging interests, the flexibility is a boon. Some universities say they offer almost 3,500 courses.
At Cambridge, you can study one subject thoroughly through numerous, intense courses. The focus on a single subject in the UK doesn’t work in the student’s favor always, according to one view. It doesn’t help the student learn more, as is the common perception. In fact, a US student majoring in physics, for example, gets the flexibility to take grad classes along with advanced math classes to supplement her education. Hence, this US student can learn more in her undergraduate course than a UK student.
In American universities, each course is assessed individually, through homework, term paper, and exams, unlike in the UK, where the annual examination after every year and the final examination at the end of the third year take care of all the assessment. Some graduates feel this doesn’t help students very much as it is just like a game in which you do well if you are good at taking tests. If you are unwell, or if you are not calm on that day, for example, you are less likely to do well.
There is no parallel to this in the real world where there is hardly any situation, except perhaps sports, where you have to perform on a given day and there is no feedback from which you can improve and you’re in or out.
The US system prepares students for the real world by its continuous evaluation and multifaceted education. Each class has a weekly assignment that students are supposed to discuss with their tutor, though these are ungraded. The continuous assessment system of the US universities is often considered superior as students are able to learn from their mistakes and take steps to improve themselves.
The UK curriculum is perceived as easier than the US system for students. US universities push students harder. UK institutions give them more freedom. Probably this is why American students going to the UK are able to top their classes and take their time in their new country as a sort of vacation and a “GPA booster,” according to one Quoran. But the question lingers whether the higher difficulty and intensity seen in the US are really needed.
One online-forum answer says that Oxbridge is better for most subjects except the CS program, which is extremely theoretical at Cambridge. Moreover, the US offers a better overall course structure and more career opportunities for students pursuing the CS program. For STEM programs, too, the US is better. MIT, Berkeley, and other US universities have stronger programs. But entry to STEM courses is much easier at Oxford, according to one view. As for alumni networking, it is thought to be much better in the US than the UK.
As for course content, subjects are taught from the basic to advanced principles in one semester in the US. If math is involved, there would be intermediate courses. But at Oxbridge, subjects are taught over three years, incrementally. This system gives students more time to study the nuances, and helps them in retention of course material and in understanding the relationships to other subjects that are being taught. Which is better depends on what manner of style is best suited to the student: incremental or in one shot.
There is not much that differentiates the four universities when it comes to facilities. But comparing Harvard and Cambridge, Harvard particularly has first-class resources and great transparency. Cambridge has only “OK” facilities, say some people, though it also has a hoary tradition and an unmatched campus. But its processes are sometimes described as ancient—for example, you need to pay for printing material at the library, believe it or not.
A choice for a student or a parent between Oxbridge and Harvard/Stanford should be based on tuition fee (not much there), weather, facilities, and adjustability, apart from the student’s interest and the best university for the chosen specialization. Each of the four universities has an area or several in which it is better than the rest.
Barrier to entry is an important consideration but obviously not the most important when you choose. The acceptance rate at Oxford was 17.5 percent, 21 percent at Cambridge, Harvard 5.4 percent, and Stanford 4.8 percent in 2018.
Rankings are also a criterion. According to the QS World Universities Rankings 2018, Stanford and Harvard were at the second and third slots (same as in 2017), and Cambridge and Oxford at the fifth and sixth slots (fourth and sixth slots in 2017). In 2016, Harvard was second, Stanford and Cambridge were joint third in 2016, and Oxford was sixth.
In the Times Higher Education Rankings 2018, Oxford and Cambridge were at one and two, Stanford at joint three along with California Institute of Tech, and Harvard at sixth. In 2016-17, Oxford was first, Stanford third, Cambridge fourth, and Harvard sixth.
One Quoran points out that Ivies vs Oxbridge is not exactly a US vs UK comparison game as the system in Oxbridge is not typical of the UK system. It is more similar to the continental European model, again, with some differences.
In the QS Graduate Employability Rankings 2018, Stanford comes first, Harvard third, Cambridge sixth, and Oxford eighth. In the (Times Higher Education) Employability Rankings 2017, Harvard came second, and Cambridge fifth, Stanford seventh, and Oxford 15th. Caltech secured the top slot.
We found that people posting their views online were, quite naturally, at least in some measure biased in favor of the university or school they went to, and rated their institutions at least slightly superior to others even while counting their minuses. But there were those who went to university on both sides of the Atlantic who sounded more or less unbiased.
|Norms, bureaucracy, behavior of students, partying style, intelligent peers, curious traditions, social-status consciousness, performance anxiety, molding students into different persons, expensive with high tuition and other fees, availability of means-tested scholarships for high-performing students and those in special circumstances|
|In-depth exploration of subjects||Broad, curious exploration of subjects|
|Narrower rigor||Brief familiarizing|
|Class delivery method instead of tutorial system|
|Subject-specific mastery||Flexibility, variety of courses|
|Environment: Secluded life within a larger city
|Different environments: middle of city (NY-Columbia), rather secluded regions (Harvard and Princeton), extensive outdoors (Dartmouth)|
|Assessment at year-end and final examinations||Continuous assessment|
|Quieter campuses, with peace and serenity, most of the year||Lively campuses, with pageantry and fanfare, especially during the games season|
|Lower tuition fee, about $50,000 a year||Higher tuition, about $70,000 a year|
Credit: Various online sources
– Ivy league universities
– Harvard blogs
– Stanford blogs
– Cambridge MBA Judge Business School Interview with Admissions Director
– How I got into Oxford
References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6