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CMI: A New Beginning ... ?

Guest Column
Khoon Tee Tan

I was a little let down by Jason H. Wasfy’s recent column, “The Cambridge-MIT Institute and Cultural Challenges” [Feb. 26]. Not because the writer happens to be from this university called Oxford. But because the article failed to provide a concrete contribution to any framework through which we could try to examine the CMI program: its strengths and failings which are inherently linked to the Cambridge and MIT systems, and the ways in which both universities could benefit from this student and faculty exchange. And to make things worse, some of the assumptions from which the arguments were derived were either obscure, loaded or plainly wrong.

Perhaps the author’s pre-occupation with what appears to be his main thrust, a better undergraduate advising system at MIT, was allowed to obscure his thinking about CMI. But anyway, that someone is speaking up to bring into focus an issue of importance to undergraduates is highly commendable. That said, I would like to focus some attention on creating some basic understanding about CMI and of the good old Cambridge. This is important; without such an understanding, we might as well be speaking two different languages as we try to identify ways of improving our institutions based on each other’s experiences.

The Next Model T. CMI was set up as a direct result of the British government’s economically driven will to make British business and industry match the world’s best. The appreciation of the link between technological progress and economic productivity and growth was translated into action to encourage entrepreneurship amongst scientists and engineers. “Education, education, education,” so was the rallying call of Tony Blair (who comes from Oxford) in his first election for Prime Minister. And what other way to ensure future progress if not through providing the best educational opportunities to the young minds of today? The definition of “the best education” is hardly objective, but one cannot argue that the important elements of a good education include developing analytical and rational thinking skills, linguistic skills, interpersonal skills, self awareness, psychomotor skills and an appreciation for the arts. This list is not exhaustive, but at the very least it captures a diverse range of fairly important capabilities that can be nurtured and developed in an individual through education.

The CMI exchange program is in large part to provide the opportunities for students to develop these skills even further via a different system, and to hopefully benefit from the best of both systems. The link between a good education and successful enterprise is well established. Perhaps through our exposure, the British government hopes that current and future CMI students would enter British industry to develop the next Model T.

Good Old Cambridge. The Cambridge educational system is centered around two basic institutions: the department and the colleges. The department (in the infrastructural sense) is where lectures are held for all students studying the same subject, irrespective of their college background.

The course syllabus is also set by the department (in the administrative sense). Through experience, lectures at Cambridge tend to be less interactive than at MIT. This is made up for by supervisions -- but more on this presently. Strikingly different from MIT, however, the system at Cambridge is such that one’s affiliation with a department automatically disqualifies any chance of being a student at another department. A philosopher-engineer in Cambridge is unheard of.

A large emphasis is placed on examinations in Cambridge (also called Tripos). Continuous assessment is quite an alien concept, although we do get a certain measure of credit from coursework. The end-of-year exams system means that the ability to consolidate the material covered throughout the year and to synthesize the material to answer an exam problem is very important. Needless to say, Easter term, the time when exams are held, is the quietest time of the year, at least until the final day of exams.

The colleges, on the other hand, are where you stay -- a living group, if you like. Admissions and accommodation arrangements lie within the domain of college administrators. What makes Cambridge colleges unique is the academic support system that they provide. Colleges conduct supervisions, usually through members of the relevant faculty who hold posts in a particular college (as tutors, deans, supervisors, etc.). Small groups of students meet during supervisions to discuss homework problems called examples papers. In a way, this helps encourage interaction on both the academic and personal levels between students and faculty, while of course helping students understand the lecture material covered in the department.

The strength of the college system also lies in each college providing opportunities for socializing amongst its students. Events such as formal halls (think of it as a black-tie dinner, with gowns for good measure), college plays or musicals and college sports teams (which challenge other colleges in the league competitions), help create an atmosphere of camaraderie between students and also between students and faculty. These aspects of the college system, and the fact that some colleges are rather small, help create student communities within the college, with students of various academic backgrounds. The thirty-odd colleges in Cambridge are independent of each other. And the departments and colleges enjoy a great degree of autonomy, but the links between the two are established via faculty members who are also attached to a college.

From this brief excursion into the Cambridge system, you should be able to draw some of your own conclusions about the similarities and differences between the two schools. I hope that you would also draw some conclusions about what could possibly be improved in both schools, and how we could all benefit by drawing the best of both worlds. I hope that this has helped provide some understanding of the Cambridge system, an understanding which is essential in building a framework to compare two eminent institutions of learning, and hence to identify the strengths and weaknesses of both through critical examination and proceed with ways to improve the level of education provided on both sides of the Atlantic. At the very least, if this column has managed to stir some interest in the CMI exchange program amongst the MIT student population, I have reason to feel well rewarded.

Khoon Tee Tan is a CMI exchange student from Pembroke College, Cambridge.