Does Cambridge live up to its reputation?
This year’s THES world university reputation rankings are out and the University of Cambridge has been named the most highly regarded university in the UK. The rankings were compiled from a questionnaire answered by almost 31,000 academics from 149 institutions. But do the university’s students agree? Does Cambridge live up to its reputation? We put the question to Cambridge students to find out.
Alan, 24, is an MPhil student studying Philosophy
"I always knew that Cambridge was considered one of the best universities in the country. It’s usually either ranked first or second in the league tables, but then I’ve never really believed in league tables. My experience here has been different to that of my undergraduate experience at the University of Edinburgh, but it hasn’t been radically different. The college system and the formal dinners make it feel unique and the overall quality of the teaching has been really good, but I don’t get many contact hours as part of my course. I knew that was going to be the case before I came here and it’s nice to be able to pursue my own interests. But I don’t feel I’ve been worked particularly hard, which seems a shame from such a prestigious institution. I think they should have expected more from me."
Ellie, 21, is an undergraduate studying Linguistics
"I studied Russian and Spanish for my first two years, before deciding I wanted to be a vet and changing to Linguistics so that I could finish in three years instead of four. My department have been very supportive and I don’t blame them for the fact that I chose the wrong degree, but I haven’t really enjoyed my time here. Cambridge is hard enough as it is and you have to really love your subject to get through it. If you don’t, it makes it that much harder. It might have been different at another university. Friends I know at other universities seem to have much more free time. I think if I’d really wanted to do my subject, I would have made the most of Cambridge and gone to all the extra lectures they have on offer. I’ve been to a few lectures at the vet school and they get some really fantastic people to speak. I think that if you make the effort, you can get a lot out of a degree here."
Jamie, 23, is an MPhil student studying Linguistics
"It’s hard to judge how good Cambridge is, as I’ve only studied at one other institution (the University of Manchester). I think your experiences will depend a lot on the department you’re in and, in terms of famous names, my department is amazing. I was never under any illusions that I would get lots of teaching and I actually think my course is really nicely designed. However, they do seem to be much more set in their ways of thinking. In Manchester you were taught all of the approaches and then left to make up your own mind. But I can see that the undergraduates are given a really good education here – there’s an emphasis on written and verbal skills, which are what employers are looking for. I don’t think you get taught such transferable skills at Manchester. Overall, I just don’t think a university could ever live up to the amount of hype that surrounds Cambridge."
Alice, 22, is an undergraduate studying Archaeology and Anthropology
"I’m really enjoying my course. It’s very varied and it’s great being taught by world experts in the subject. It hasn’t really disappointed me in any way. I find it easy to believe that Cambridge is the best university in the country. I think the contact time you get and the supervision system forces you to be on the ball and teaches you to work under pressure, but at the same time it’s a very open environment and it’s great to be able to talk to the person who knows the most about the essay you’ve just written. I don’t think other universities have so much contact time. I’ve applied for a few jobs and it seems that employers really target Oxbridge students in their graduate recruitment. People here are so passionate about a range of different things and everybody’s really open to discussion. The university has a really nice atmosphere."
Sebastian, 21, is an MPhil student studying Physics
"Coming to Cambridge, I may have had rather unrealistic expectations of the course that I was embarking on. Part III of the Mathematical Tripos is reputed to be an extremely tough, but rewarding course, taught by some of the best minds in the field. The first and last points are indubitable, but the second not so much. I’ve found the size of the classes too large (between 20-50), and certainly much larger than they were at my previous university. The quality of lectures has varied from very good to somewhat difficult to follow and, although my expectations were perhaps higher than they should have been, I have been rather disappointed by the experience. This was going to be a year in which I learnt a lot of very interesting Physics, all in good depth, but instead it turned into a running battle to glean whatever insight I could from the lectures."
Alistair, 21, is an undergraduate studying English
"My course has lived up to all of my expectations, but I’m not sure it would be for everybody. There are a lot of compulsory elements to the course and you only really get a choice on a couple of papers in third year, so it’s kind of restricting for a tertiary education. The teaching has been really good and the supervision system works well. I feel like I’ve had a world class education, but then I’ve never experienced another university, so I can’t really compare it. It doesn’t surprise me when the university gets ranked first in the world and it’s basically why most people apply. My experience has been very good, but I am worried that they aren’t going to be able to maintain such high standards with all the funding cuts to arts faculties. My own experience has been very good because the faculty has been able to provide the teaching hours, but without that there’s very little difference between a Cambridge degree and any other degree. The one-on-one supervision system is what makes it special and that’s under threat."
Hannah, 24, is an MPhil student studying Management
"I’m happy with my course, but I’m very much judging it on what comes afterwards. I’m not too concerned with the contents of the course, but more with how far it gets me. I’ve been taught by some great people, but it’s hard to compare a business school to the Art History department at UCL, where I did my undergraduate degree. It doesn’t surprise me that Cambridge is really well regarded, but the question is who is regarding it well. The THES rankings are based on what academics think, not what employers think. I don’t think employers care that I’ve been to Cambridge. I thought it would help me more in job applications and that’s what I was sold. Instead employers say: ‘you’ve got a degree from Cambridge, so what?’ I would say that a very small percentage of students care purely about academic reputation. It matters more what employers think and I don’t think having a degree from Cambridge makes a big difference."
Julian, 21, is an undergraduate studying Maths
"The teaching has been pretty good on the whole. Some lecturers are great and some aren’t quite so good, but I think the main difference is that you get one-on-one supervision, which is easy to take for granted. You often get a PhD student as a supervisor, instead of a Nobel laureate, but it’s good to be able to quiz an expert on what you’re studying. I don’t think Cambridge has a vastly different intellectual culture to other high ranking universities, but then the culture probably varies from subject to subject. (Maths is very competitive.) The system is quite antiquated and some people find it hard to get their heads around. It’s quite easy not to get the most out of the system because it’s all so informal. If your director of studies isn’t very engaged with you then you can have a hard time. But overall, I’m very happy with the experience I’ve had here."
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