Alan Ryan

November 26, 2004

It's time to stop being smug and admit that the US has reared a generation of cosmopolitan high-achievers

One of our last occasions for self-congratulation is destined for the dustbin. Whatever we Brits feel when we see US institutions leading every "top 50" of research universities, we have always been able to console ourselves with the thought that our pupils leave school vastly better educated than the output of US public high schools.

No more. A century of change has put paid to that.

When the Rhodes scholarships were created in 1903, young men who had graduated from Yale or Harvard universities would take another undergraduate degree at Oxford University. US undergraduate education at the time was not much more advanced than an English sixth form.

Even 30 years ago, a bachelor of arts in the UK demanded much more of students than one in the US. But it is no longer true that US undergraduates are two years behind their UK counterparts. A week spent interviewing high-school students who want to come to Oxford suggests to me that the best candidates from the US education system are as good as, and often better than, their UK peers.

To put it the other way round, UK applicants to the most fiercely selective universities are no better equipped than US students who have not done "gold standard" A levels, have not had the blessings of a national curriculum and have had an education marked by breadth rather than depth.

Since these were not particularly well-off students, and for the most part they attended public high schools, it suggests that Mike Tomlinson was right to think that you can have lots of vocational teaching alongside more academic education, and lots of breadth without imperilling depth. How do the students do it? A lot comes from the raw energy that we have done our best to domesticate out of our brightest 18-year-olds.

It is an odd reversal; once, we mocked US schools for their multiple-choice tests and predigested answer plans, but now we insist on orthodoxy while the Americans have moved the other way. And a lot of it comes from the intellectual hunger that drives many of these students to pile self-taught courses on top of a demanding curriculum.

Advanced Placement courses are not easily compared with A levels or even with Scottish Highers - but US universities treat three As at A level as roughly equal to three or four AP courses, grade 4 or 5.

The students I saw were doing up to six regular courses and adding a self-taught AP in world history or European literature to round off their education - and getting 5s for the lot.

If there is one weakness that the UK and the US share it is that the best get such perfect scores that they cannot be separated from one another. Too many of them get 1,600s in the SAT and a string of 5s in AP courses.

These days, Ivy League institutions turn down hundreds of applicants with SATs of 1,550 out of 1,600. But at least in the US the problem arises only with the top 1 or 2 per cent of school-leavers; we have got it for the top 25 per cent of A-level students.

The other very noticeable thing was how many students came from ethnic minority backgrounds or from recently arrived families. Perhaps the most spectacular example was the young Russian woman who apologised in perfect English for her imperfect French and German before revealing that she had been in the US only four years.

But why did they want to come to Oxford? It is not exactly a cheap option.

One or two said jokingly that it was an alternative to migrating to Canada - the newspapers were full of the story that there had been a tenfold increase in hits on the Canadian immigration website the day President George W. Bush secured re-election.

But, mostly, they had genuinely educational goals: one was negative - they did not want to spend two years messing about doing "general ed" courses when they could be learning philosophy or economics. Others were positive; they particularly wanted to work at the pace Oxford demands of students.

They wanted to be pushed and to experience the personal attention the tutorial system offers. And they all wanted to live and work in a wider world.

Between the United Nations, non-governmental organisations, international law firms and government service, they were almost all of them devoted to the causes of world peace, economic justice and human rights.

It is a testimonial to the cosmopolitan virtues of the UK that such bright young people from not-exactly parochial cities such as New York and Los Angeles should have reckoned that we could introduce them to a bigger world than that dreamed of by Bush and his friends.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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