Category Archives: education

The big Universities vote

Ahhh England. Always willing to get all up in arms over something that would never had occurred to me. Apparently for many years, university tuition was “free” for students. Of course, it was never actually free, as there is a real cost associated with education. But the funds to support universities were all central, meaning that each and every tax-payer contributed to the higher education of each student. Some number of years ago “fees” were introduced, at the meagre sum of about £3k per year. So £9-12k for a 3-4 year degree, and a generous system of student loans that means that you only paid money back once you had a certain income.

Today is the big vote in parliament about increasing the level of these fees for university tuition, to a maximum value of £9k per year. Still a bargain in the context of an American university: that’s £27-36 for a 3-4 year degree, or $42-57k for an entire degree, including at places like Oxford or Cambridge, compared with $50k PER YEAR to attend a comparable US institution, such as Harvard. Even “public” (state) universities in America cost a fortune: at the very non-Harvard state University I attended, this year the numbers are:

In-State Freshmen

Tuition and fees (15 credits/semester): $11,722

Housing (double room/Silver Meal Plan): $7,820

Total for two semesters: $19,542

Non-Michigan Freshmen

Tuition and fees (15 credits/semester): $29,622

Housing (double room/Silver Meal Plan): $7,820

Total for two semesters: $37,442

So again, for an out of state student, a year is almost as much as a complete UK degree.

My biggest beef with the coverage of all of this, and believe me, it’s been a near-constant drone in the background for the last few weeks, is the prevailing idea that “it used to be free and now it’s not.” It was never free. This is just a shift in the burden of who pays, from a distributed model (everyone pays for the few students attending university) to a direct model (those who attend university pay for it). I don’t understand what’s not fair about this. The benefit is direct: yesterday I saw numbers showing a £400k+ lifetime additional income for those with a university degree compared to for those without one: is that not worth paying a few paltry tens of thousands for? Especially when none is demanded up-front and the overall payments don’t start until you have a significant income? Sounds fair to me. But then again, I’m always confused when the welfare state model is supported over the personal responsibility model, because after all–I am American. This is what I’m used to.

Oh I know, I’m risking significant ire for having this opinion. The BBC even seems keen to dump their neutrality and never uses the words “universities fees rise” without the word “controversial” in the same sentence. Maybe it is controversial to some, certainly we’ve seen students protesting and even mini-riots in the last few weeks. But on this one I’m with the much-beleaguered coalition government: someone has to pay for higher education, and I’ve not yet seen a good argument as to why it should not be the people who benefit directly from it. (Now ducking for inevitable flames…)

Not quite six degrees of Kevin Bacon

As an American working in Engineering in the UK, I am often asked if I was a student at MIT. Although I attended some very good engineering institutions in the US, I was never registered at MIT. It was a childhood dream of mine (geek confession, I had an MIT sweatshirt aged 10 and I thought my life plan was set) but it never happened formally. However, when I was in the last months of finishing my PhD, through a collaboration I had a chance to spend 11 days at MIT. In visiting Singapore, I have found that my life boils down to two, maybe three, degrees of MIT. Not six degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Eleven days does not sound like much in terms of building a career. But I have found that, when I attend conferences of the sort that I am at now, in Singapore, the people with whom I hang out are people that I met during those eleven days at MIT. Or, at very worst, people who I met through one person that I met during that time. I can sort my entire professional life into either two or three degrees of separation from MIT.

Clearly those who attend MIT are more likely to exist in my world of research, compared with those people I know from my own undergraduate or graduate days at Big-10 schools in the midwest. I could guess this based simply on the number of my MN high school facebook friends who are still in Minnesota, compared with my work friends who are from everywhere. My MIT friends are from all over the world and have been willing to travel all over the world for employment, which is similar to my own circumstance.

But, I have to admit, I never thought those eleven days at MIT would play such a strong role in my life over five years later. In the end, the collaboration for which I was there did not even yield a publication (critical in my world of science), but just a Master’s thesis. I now enter into collaborations with other universities more aware of the potential results of the long-term benefits from having been associated with each other, although I honestly think MIT is an island unto itself and not following any pattern or mould associated with other engineering institutions.

I have one more very full day of work to do before I leave on the near-midnight flight back to the UK tomorrow. I’ve enjoyed this Singapore trip more than my previous two, if only because I’ve had so many interesting meals with interesting people (all who I know through my MIT connections). I’ve talked on this blog before about professional friends , and the longer I am in my job, the more convinced I am by the need to attend out-of-town events either with someone from my own group or in serious meeting-up-with-professional-friends mode. I’ve had a great time this trip, because I had three different friends (who did not necessarily know each other, despite the MIT connections) to have food and drinks and conversations with. So I leave Singapore knowing that this trip was worth it, and that the worth was mostly in the connections I’ve strengthened through our common interests in science and in which we might all have just managed to mentioned MIT in passing. I have no degrees from MIT, but I do have a strange connection. And I adore my “professional friends” in their second and third degrees of separation from a marvelous institution.

You learn something new…

I’m from Minnesota. I may have mentioned that before. We Minnesotans tend to be fiercely proud about our state. But I learned something new about Minnesota last week and I’m still a bit in shock about it. It turns out that any Civil War buff who knows their stuff will know that it was Minnesotans who turned the tide at the Battle of Gettysburg, which (along with the Battle of Vicksburg) is seen as changing the direction and eventual result of the Civil War.

Why did we not learn about this in school? It sounds sort of important.

I came upon this startling information in Gettysburg, where I did a battlefield tour when I was in town for a local arts festival on my way to a work thing in State College, PA. I learned so many interesting things, like about the craze for cyclorama paintings in the late 18th century. Again, who knew?

Minnesota only became a state in 1858. (Trivia note: The University of Minnesota, founded in 1851, actually pre-dates the state!) Several of the maps around the official battlefield museum did not have Minnesota on them and thus did not identify them as being unionist. But our little group of soldiers made a huge difference, and at significant sacrifice. The monumental inscription tells the story best:

On the afternoon of July 2, 1863 Sickles’ Third Corps, having advanced from this line to the Emmitsburg Road, eight companies of the First Minnesota Regiment, numbering 262 men were sent to this place to support a battery upon Sickles repulse.

As his men were passing here in confused retreat, two Confederate brigades in pursuit were crossing the swale. To gain time to bring up the reserves & save this position, Gen Hancock in person ordered the eight companies to charge the rapidly advancing enemy.

The order was instantly repeated by Col Wm Colvill. And the charge as instantly made down the slope at full speed through the concentrated fire of the two brigades breaking with the bayonet the enemy’s front line as it was crossing the small brook in the low ground there the remnant of the eight companies, nearly surrounded by the enemy held its entire force at bay for a considerable time & till it retired on the approach of the reserve the charge successfully accomplished its object. It saved this position & probably the battlefield. The loss of the eight companies in the charge was 215 killed & wounded. More than 83% percent. 47 men were still in line & no man missing. In self sacrificing desperate valor this charge has no parallel in any war. Among the severely wounded were Col Wm Colvill, Lt Col Chas P Adams & Maj Mark W. Downie. Among the killed Capt Joseph Periam, Capt Louis Muller & Lt Waldo Farrar. The next day the regiment participated in repelling Pickett’s charge losing 17 more men killed & wounded.

It had never occurred to me to do Civil War battlefield tours before, and Gettysburg was not on my “to do” list in terms of trips and tourist things, but I am so glad I got to see it and to learn about this. The longer I’ve lived in the UK, the more interesting I’ve found American history! And in this case, “Minnesota’s Own” really did make a big difference.

Bits and bobs revisited

I’ve done this before when I had a bunch of random US-UK tabs open in my browser window. In the spirit of the game, I will leave them in the random order they’re in, and not edit the order to group things on common topics, hopefully creating an interesting non-pattern.

There we have it, bits and bobs for a crazy Thursday. I took my team to the pub tonight to introduce a few new recruits, and it turns out that if you count passports, birthplaces, long-time residence locations and birthplaces of parents, we are a mini-United Nations with all 6 inhabited continents represented, most more than once, and a remarkably complicated set of allegiances. This I love about my line of work. Although it just reinforces my relatively new prejudice that I get along best with people who have also been expats or closely allied with expats…

Pond Parleys

If you have not been over to Pond Parleys this week, I am the guest blogger discussing differences between the educational systems in the US and the UK with Expatmum. It was a really fun thing to do, and a subject dear to my heart. Make sure you stop by and have a read!

Some Enchanted Evening

I watched the classic “South Pacific” last night and had one of those “ooh, US/UK different” moments when I realized that I’ve never heard anyone in the UK mention Japan in the context of World War II. And it’s not like the Brits are over WWII, it gets mentioned ALL THE TIME! If you ask an average American to quick say the first five things that come into their heads in the context of WWII, I would guess both “Pearl Harbor” and the Nagasaki/Hiroshima bombs would rank pretty high. Probably also Hitler and Anne Frank. My own grandfather served in the Pacific, as a Pharmacist’s Mate in the Navy. He got malaria and barely recovered in time for his wedding in late 1945. So the Pacific theatre was always an important part of my own WWII reading. (Amusingly enough, my sister and I found that our American History courses in school often started with the colonies in September, made it through the revolutionary war and then only made it just past the Civil war by June, at which point we’d break for the summer and start all over again the following year… if I was relying solely on my formal education I’d know lots about the American Revolution and nothing about WWII–thank goodness for books!) I’d love to know how much coverage the whole Japanese aspect of WWII gets in British schools, so if anyone can pipe up and fill me in, that would be most excellent. And in the meantime, although it’s not my favorite musical, the music in South Pacific is darned good. The plot doubly invokes my pet peeve about movies in which the characters supposedly fall in love while barely knowing each other (or in the case of Lt. Cable and Liat, not even being able to speak the same language) so it’s never going to become a true favorite of mine.

On Teaching and Learning

There is a report in the Guardian this morning on the sorry state of primary school education in Britain. This is one of those cases where I found my culture shock at moving to the UK to be the greatest: they have a completely different idea of what schooling means, both in primary and secondary school, and it’s probably at least partly related to a University system that has so little to do with an American university that it’s not recognizable. I truly was not expecting such immense philosophical differences in the field of education, nor have I been able to be convinced since being here that the English system is a particularly effective one when it comes to true teaching and learning. It involves specialization at a very young age and lots of stressful examinations, which is one of the key points in the Guardian piece.

For background for those unfamiliar with the English system, the end of a “general” education is at age 16, as the years from 16-18 involve detailed studying of only three or four subjects, and in the area in which you will major at University. University has no “general education” element, which results in a 3-year instead of 4-year Bachelors degree. I am not questioning the qualifications of these students compared with American degrees, but the philosophy is just so different that I have a difficult time comprehending. (Perhaps one or more of my friendly British readers will provide some commentary, especially those cases where both systems have been experienced directly!)

One of the most pressing issues in all of this is the UK’s emphasis on examinations. I can honestly say that there were only a few times in my life where I had a reasonably stressful examination, all above the age of 15 or 16 and never for more than a day: the PSAT, which determines a scholarship for University, the ACT, which determines part of Uni entrance competitiveness, and the GRE for grad school admissions. We had standardized testing in the schools, but it was not stressful, at least not for me (who knows what the teachers felt!) I don’t feel as though the student body in general was particularly fussed about these exams, it merely represented a day in which we did not have our normal classes at the normal times.

My views of my American education are quite positive. The emphasis on learning instead of examining meant that we had far more of our total outcome for any subject based on projects, reports, take-home examinations where libraries could be consulted and the overall level of creative thinking was high. Exams were one small part of the picture, at all levels including high school and University. And the broader curriculum meant that I was able, as a science/math geek, to still take English literature, Russian language and literature, psychology and sociology as subjects at University level, even though technically they have nothing to do with my Engineering degree. How less broad my education would have been without that needed diversion and distraction from purely math and physics! And how better prepared I was for working in the real world, where outcomes in jobs are most certainly not evaluated by formal seated examinations!

I do not mean to cause offense by criticizing a system that is not my own. But I put this out there because I am honestly having a difficult time understanding the merits of this heavy testing schedule for children, and clearly I’m not alone–as is reflected in the Guardian piece–since the criticism for testing children so much is now reaching fever pitch. I had a casual conversation with a friend a few weeks ago in which she said that if she had kids she would have to leave the UK, as she could not subject them to this system. I had not thought of it in quite such stark terms (not having or planning on kids myself) but I could see her point, and it came back to me in reading this Guardian piece right now. It brings up broader philosophical points too: what is the role of education, and how does that role change in primary school, secondary school and University-level education? My own grandparents only went through American “8th grade” living out in the wilderness of southwestern Minnesota, although they did supplement their educations several times each later in life. It’s clear that with the passage of time, over the last 50 years especially but 100 years as well, that the importance of University education has increased, which has increased the pressure on students at younger ages to consider their competitiveness for Uni admissions. But at what point do we have to stop and say that up until the age of 18, we are still dealing with CHILDREN here, and take some of the pressures off to allow for the enjoyment of freedom that one never sees again with the commencement of one’s working days?