Tuesday, 30 July 2013

On Education Systems

I've been wondering about education systems, and which ones are best. Different countries have different systems at the university level, in terms of how long the courses are. Is this length an indicator of quality?

In India, they have 3 year Bachelor degrees. The quality of these aren't top notch. The academic content is poorer by 50% compared to foreign universities because they concentrate on theory formation and not application. One reason for this is the lack of funding. And there are cultural differences. Universities abroad don't treat you like they're doing you a favour by letting you enrol. You're paying them to be there. You're a client. They need to treat you like one. Indian educational institutes don't get this. Indian colleges work on the assumption that they can push you around, that your fees enable them to act as your personal moral guardian. In short, Indian colleges treat you like a child, foreign ones treat you like an adult. But they're cheap (which is why I attended an Indian University; my kids won't). In the US, Bachelor or undergrad degrees are 4 years long. The same with Canada. 

A sucky thing about universities is that if you study a science subject like biology, they force you to study other science subjects like physics and chemistry during your first year, even though you aren't interested in these. Duh! You wouldn't have chosen biology at the university level if you wanted to study physics. I can understand an educational system pulling a stunt like this in high school, where they bombard you with as many different subjects as possible to give you a taste of everything so you can decide what you like and hate. Whether they do this to very good effect is another matter, but the philosophy behind the idea is sound (even if some schools screw it up by focussing only on the theoretical aspects of a subject or science and don't expose you to what daily work in that field is going to be like in terms of competencies you will need to develop over time, or the amount of time you will need to spend on different tasks and responsibilities).

To side track a little more, I think the first year of most foreign universities concentrates on the same thing Indian high schools do in their final year - cramming info about as many different subjects into a person's brain. My guess is that this sometimes leads to the false belief that Indian schools and universities are tougher than foreign ones. Which is not entirely true. You need to see this in terms of timelines. Indian high schools have 'streams' at the senior level (the last two years). If you pick the science stream, you go through two years of mental bootcamp. So yeah, the last two years of high school might be tougher than foreign ones (Canadian, American, British, Australian, New Zealand) in terms of amount of information assimilated, assuming you choose the science stream (the commerce and arts streams are relatively easier) but more information doesn't mean better education. I'd rather be taught critical reasoning skills than a bunch of assumptions disguised as facts which I can't recognise are assumptions because I haven't been taught any critical reasoning skills. I think that's where foreign high schools have an edge over Indian ones. 

Now let's move to the University level. True, Indian kids might have a slight advantage from the curriculum point of view given that they've covered more subject matter in high school. But I think that that difference is cancelled out in the first year of university. Because that's all the time that foreign kids need to catch up. And then they spend the next three years doing way more advanced stuff. Which gives them an edge over Indian kids. Indian kids who move to the US or UK for college will have an advantage over the locals kids for the first year at most. After that, it's a level playing field.

Moving back to comparing different university systems, the UK has a three year Bachelor's degree with an option to do a fourth 'honours' year, which is basically fewer modules and a large research project. So comparing all these systems, I'd say the US Bachelors system is the best, apart from the costs. And especially given the profile of a lot of their universities. The UK comes close, but the only British universities that can compare to the top 20 American ones in terms of quality are Cambridge, Oxford and St Andrews. The US simply has more money going into more institutions and more scientists doing a greater amount of good research, which students have a greater opportunity to experience.

Now looking at how Masters programmes are run, most countries have a two-year option. India does. But again, the quality of education in India isn't the best. The US has a two year option. But not all American universities run masters programmes. Most of them just run 5 year Phd programmes. Which is not always the same as a Masters followed by a PhD. Still, this might be the best system given the alternatives. 

It's different in the UK, where Masters degrees are one year long and PhDs are 3 years long. Also, PhDs in the UK are usually self funded, which makes people enrol in them part time (6 years). The only funded PhD programmes in the UK are ones where you're employed to work on someone else's already well defined project. Unless this matches your own research interests, plan on funding your own PhD. A lot of students don't mind working on someone else's project. A lot of them are not sure what they want to do anyway, and don't mind doing research on a subject that's somewhat related to what they're interested in as long as it's fully funded. The large number of universities in the UK mean that there are lots of opportunities for EU residents to choose between. The rest either have deep pockets, or do it part-time. 

But coming back to the UK Masters programme, one year can be pretty intense. And there's a lot of variation between universities. Getting a Masters at Edinburgh University is not the same as getting a Masters at Edinburgh Napier University. In Sweden, Masters programmes contain about the same number of modules, but these are spread over a period of two years, giving students a longer time to rationalise and think about what they've learned, which I think is important. 

Masters education in the UK in contrast seems more like a business. You have so many classes and so little time to think about them. You start in September or October. You have 2.5 months of classes, then exams, including a one-week mid semester break. You have a 1-2 month winter break, then about 2.5 months of classes from February to April, including another one-week mid-semester break. The rest (May to July/August) is spent on a research project. This is quite intense. A better option would be to extend everything. Extend the research project to 4-6 months. Double the number of classes. Include two internships. This would require extending the course to 1.5-2 years. Which I think would be better, personally. 

As it stands, I think a UK Masters equips people to tackle a UK PhD specific to their Masters research interests, but it isn't flexible enough to allow you to attempt somewhat different PhD programmes. Which makes the UK Masters a great well marketed package aimed at getting people where they know they want to go in a short time i.e. equipping them with a short amount of essential skills that the uni thinks they need, over teaching students everything they could over a longer period of time. It's a tradeoff - skills vs. time. 

For those with the time and money, go to the US. As for PhDs, again I'd say the US is best. The UK is great if you've got a specific project in mind, and funding. And it's quick (three years). But if you want more flexibility, more funding, and better opportunities, go to the US.


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