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Sour Grapes?


Sour Grapes?

by Kenneth Lyen

First let me admit to my conflict of interest. I did graduate from one of the oldest British universities, and I did spend three postgraduate years in an Ivy League university. Both sets of universities are now under fire.

Let’s start off with England. Four years ago, Laura Spence, a product of the British state school, was rejected by Oxford University despite getting straight A’s for her A’levels. She has now graduated from an Ivy League university, Harvard. In a roundabout way, she criticises British universities by saying that American universities give a more balanced education than the British.

Having attended universities on both sides of the Atlantic, I think that such generalisations are too sweeping to hold true. It depends on the course and how the student makes use of the educational opportunities afforded by the course. There is one aspect of the Oxbridge system that I think has not been duplicated elsewhere. This is its adherence to the Socratic method of teaching with an individualised tutorial system. To me, this is university education at its best.

What about America? A critique of the American Ivy League comes from Kate Lorenz of CareerBuilder. She says: "recently, major pharmaceutical, manufacturing and commercial banking companies have shifted recruiting resources away from the Ivies in favor of institutions like the University of Illinois, Purdue and Texas A&M, where they have greater success attracting and retaining high-caliber grads." The reason, she says, is that Ivy League graduates tend to job hop and do not bring much added value to the organisation they join.

To support such sweeping generalisations, she goes on to say: "If you look at the top "self-made" billionaires on Forbes' Richest Americans list, only one holds an Ivy League degree: Warren Buffett who has a masters of science from Columbia. Many others are [gasp!] college dropouts: Bill Gates (well, Harvard, but still a dropout); Microsoft's Paul Gardner Allen (Washington State dropout); Oracle's Larry Ellison (University of Illinois dropout), and Dell's Michael Dell (University of Texas dropout)."

The flaw in her argument is that you cannot determine from a handful of top billionaires the value of a particular university, whether Ivy League or not. However I would be the first to agree that the perceived superiority of graduates from these elite universities is probably overblown. Perhaps at some stage in the distant past, Oxbridge and Ivy League universities were indeed superior. This advantage has certainly been eroded over the years. Nevertheless they still exude some aura of prestige, and they continue to occupy the top places in the ranking of universities.

Are the critics of these universities the ones who failed to get into them? Do I get a whiff of sour grapes?

Ouch, don’t hit me so hard!