Cambridge is 24th for music in UK league table

Cambridge is 24th for music in UK league table


norman lebrecht

May 29, 2018

The Guardian has published its annual league of university rankings for music, based mostly on degrees of student satisfaction.

Durham comes top, Surrey second.

Oxford des not make the top ten, and Cambridge, well….

Read here.

Curiously, in the all-subject league table, Cambridge comes top and Oxford second. Some musical dysfunction, perhaps?


  • Dominic Stafford says:

    Speaking as a former Program Manager for the Fulbright Commission, I can say that there is nothing more idiotic than the ranking of Universities by newspapers like The Guardian.

  • Adrienne says:

    And in “Satisfied with course” and “Satisfied with teaching”, Bangor comes top.

    “Career after six months” tells a different story entirely.

    Hmmm …. decisions, decisions

  • Rob Keeley says:

    I’d suggest our students (at King’s) have far more important things to do with their lives than fill in a form. They are too busy working, playing in orchestras, singing, enjoying London and (if they had any sense) getting drunk occasionally.

  • John Borstlap says:

    In my time at Cambridge (eighties) the music faculty was a top institution. Although it had some crazy people at its staff, it was challenging in the right way – as long as students did not openly express scepticism about St Arnold, the local saint. It was intellecually entirely free, except on the point of heresy.

  • Robert King says:

    One of the things the survey doesn’t report (or isn’t apparent within this table) is from how many student responses the table is created. So if there were only 12 replies from one University, say, the opinions of a handful of students could substantially colour the results.

    • Will Duffay says:

      It’s based on NSS results (National Student Survey of final year students) which have a minimum threshold of 10 responents and 50% completion rate. So there could be only 12 replies but that would be out of a final year of 24 students. So you can be sure that a lot of Cambridge students completed it.

      • Robert King says:

        That’s interesting: thank you very much. But it still means (unless I misunderstand) that a ranking could be created on the reports of just 10 students. Thus just one person saying a course was rubbish – or was brilliant – could radically affect the ranking. For example, I believe there may be around 70 music students in each year at Cambridge. If the survey was based on reports from all 70 of them, we would hopefully have a balanced survey. But if it was based on the results of, say, just a dozen who, as Rob Keeley points out below, found time to fill in a form, the results could be skewed one way or another by the report of just one respondent. Notwithstanding all sorts of other factors, not knowing what proportion of the total number of students produced the ranking makes these figures seem – to me at least – a little unreliable.

        • Will Duffay says:

          It would have to be at least 35, as it’s as minimum of 10 AND at least 50%. So they want to avoid responses from very small cohorts.

          What’s interesting about these surveys (and students are asked to fill in large numbers of them, because of course they are ‘customers’ in governments’ eyes and so what they think matters) is that the assumption might be that the disgruntled are more likely to complete them. But there have been studies of this and that turns out not to be true: that people positively and negatively engaged will respond.

          • SVM says:

            Maybe so, but see my comment below about the fact that Cambridge undergraduates are placed under no pressure whatsoever to complete the NSS. Every other university or conservatoire I have visited instigates a big publicity campaign, with lots of posters and prize draws, to encourage students to complete the NSS… but not Cambridge. So, if you are a reasonably satisfied Cambridge final-year undergraduate, it would be pretty easy not to notice the NSS at all, or forget to complete it by the deadline. In fact, in 2017, the response-rate for Music at Cambridge *was* inquorate (although it may have been due to the NUS’s boycott campaign).

  • Geraint Lewis says:

    Whole thing is Bonkers!! And who takes the Grauniad seriously on any subject? Nobody in their right minds!!!

  • C Porumbescu says:

    More startling, surely, is the fact that only two of the specialist music colleges make the top ten.

  • Alex Davies says:

    I tend to think that student satisfaction probably says as much about the students as it does about the institution.

    I read Modern History at Oxford, and students were often dissatisfied with the course. In particular, Oxford for a long time struggled to know how to teach historiography.

    In my day it was examined by an extended essay on comparative history and historiography. One selected a question from a rather eccentric list and then wrote a long essay on it. They would be things like, ‘Is all history providential?’ Needless to say, this was very unsatisfactory.

    The predecessor of the extended essay was the general paper, an examination for which students could not really prepare, but in which they would answer questions using their general knowledge of the subject. This was also very unsatisfactory.

    And yet I don’t think that it would be fair to damn the Oxford history faculty because students were dissatisfied with the course structure. The dissatisfaction was justified and the faculty eventually made appropriate changes. Overall, the faculty maintains a reputation as one of the best in the world (possibly the very best).

    Now, I may be wrong, but I suspect that there are similar problems with a lot of degree courses. What I wonder is whether students at elite institutions have a tendency to think more critically about what they are being taught and sometimes to frame their objections in rather philosophical terms. So it may be that Cambridge music students are less satisfied than students at Teesside (which I did not even know has a university) not because Cambridge is worse but because its students expect more and have the critical skills to question how they believe that music should be taught.

    • Will Duffay says:

      The newer universities tend to focus principally on teaching and have more contact time with students. There seems to be reluctance at the older institutions to make changes in that direction.

      • SVM says:

        Re Davies: Hear hear — a good course should leave students asking more questions and wanting more, not feeling “satisfied”.

        Re Duffay: I doubt any of the newer universities can rival the level of individual attention accorded to Cambridge students. Cambridge is almost unique in its “supervision” system for undergraduates — that is, one-to-one and small-group teaching in addition to the lectures and seminars. The only other institutions to give comparable individual attention are the conservatoires, where the crux of the curriculum vests decidedly in the Principal Study.

        Re the table: It looks like Cambridge’s score was dragged-down by an especially low percentages for the “Satisfied with course” metric and “Satisfied with feedback” metric. Based on my own experience as a Cambridge undergraduate several years ago, I would attribute these to the following:

        1. As King intimated, there were low response rates. Cambridge puts almost no pressure whatsoever on its undergraduates to answer the NSS, and the quorum for inclusion of NSS data is a mere 50% response-rate. In 2017, the response-rate was inquorate (possibly due to the NUS’s campaign to boycott the NSS on account of the government’s proposal to link NUS scores to eligibility to charge higher tuition fees… then again, musos are not the most political beasts, so it may just be apathy); in 2016, 35 responded out of a cohort of 57 (circa 61%). Thus, I suspect that the responders are disproportionately likely to be people who were dissatisfied.

        2. An intellectually stimulating course involving the very best students is bound to leave them brimming with more questions and issues (Davies puts this point rather well).

        3. Sometimes, a good course will force students to do things they may not enjoy — it is for their own long-term intellectual good.

        4. Feedback on *official* assessments is very limited (the examiners’ reports are available for consultation in the faculty library, but these are generic to the cohort who sat a given paper in a given year, and tend to make only fleeting references to individual performance, and, even such references are anonymised, since the examiners themselves do not know who the candidate was) — one is informed of one’s scores at the end of the academic year, and one can contextualise them by consulting the class-lists, which display the overall classifications obtained by others (except any student who had opted-out of appearing on the class-lists). The main source of feedback for Cambridge undergraduates is through the “supervision” system: the nature of such feedback is very much at the discretion of the supervisor in question, and it does not count towards the degree assessment. Consequently, some divergence in quality is inevitable (but the point is that supervisors can tailor feedback to the needs of the individual student, and, moreover, by allowing a plurality of methods to coexist, best practice emerges through the cumulative experience of a diverse range of approaches, rather than being an imposed top-down construct). Personally, I think this is a price well worth paying, but I suppose some may have felt bitter if they had done badly and not got much feedback on *official* assessments (I know I felt bitter about the feedback I got for my composition portfolios, mainly because my supervisor thought more highly of them than did my examiners).

        5. As others have observed (cf. Keeley — although it is unclear whether he is referring to King’s Cambridge or KCL — and Anon), some Cambridge undergraduates are more interested in the extra-curricular opportunities than in the course itself.

        One other point: I was slightly surprised that Cambridge was beaten by other institutions on the student-to-staff ratio. The Russell-Group university at which I work has a more favourable ratio in the table, but I find that hard to believe, and I feel certain that the amount of individual attention accorded to undergraduates at the university where I work is considerably less than at Cambridge. I am curious to know whether the Guardian included the numerous external supervisors, College Teaching Officers, and College Directors of Music not affiliated to the Faculty of Music itself. Also, is the FTE of a staff member taken into account in the metric?

        • Will Duffay says:

          So the students who responded are wrong? Sounds like a complete reluctance to acknowledge that Cambrige may have a problem. And I wouldn’t expect Durham or Surrey students to be any (or much…) less engaged or intelligent.
          Head in sand.

          • SVM says:

            Speaking as somebody who studied at Cambridge as an undergraduate and who now works at another Russell Group university, I can say with reasonable confidence that the “supervision” system at Cambridge, whilst it can lead to some inconsistency, is a precious and special (and very expensive!) feature of Cambridge that is almost unparalleled in the UK university sector (obviously, the conservatoire sector, with its focus on one-to-one teaching, does parallel the individual attention offered by Cambridge, albeit focussed on a principal study rather than on a range of academic topics). I am not denying that issues may arise, especially with regard to the quality and nature of the feedback offered, but I think such issues are a price worth paying to avoid the centralised, top-down standardisation of teaching found elsewhere.

            It is also worth noting that, for the Music Tripos at least, Cambridge is still quite conservative in the proportion of top grades it awards (although it has been subject to inflation over the decades), and is quite prepared to award lower-seconds or even thirds. Naturally, this will lead to lower satisfaction among some students, who may feel (rightly or wrongly) that they would have got a higher grade had they gone to another university.

        • Alex Davies says:

          You seem to be forgetting that Oxford has almost exactly the same method of teaching, except it’s known as the tutorial system rather than the supervision system. It has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is clearly that the student has one-to-one (sometimes two-to-one) attention from the tutor, meaning that the full hour is devoted entirely to the student’s personal understanding of the topic. When it works well it works very well indeed.

          There are, however, very definite disadvantages. For one thing, it depends very much on the quality of the teaching. I had one tutor who did two-to-one tutorials, and the first 15 minutes of the tutorial could easily be taken up with a student reading his or her essay. (Some tutors budget 75 minutes for a tutorial to allow for reading the essay and then having the full hour left.) This particular tutor would then barely address the content of the essay and would ramble aimlessly over tangentially relevant topics and could easily be diverted onto sharing his reminiscences of colleagues cited in the essay. The chap was a retired head of an Oxford college, which is about as prestigious as it gets at Oxford. He didn’t even set essay questions or reading lists. He’d just suggest a vague topic for the essay, expect us to use the standard works, and recommend one or two specialist studies.

          Another disadvantage is that there is no guarantee that one’s tutor will have any role in setting or marking the exam paper. When I moved to London to take a taught master’s degree I was rather surprised to discover that my tutor would be setting the exam questions and marking the scripts. At Oxford I was caught out by a paper on British History 1500-1700 which bizarrely asked not a single question about Henry VIII (to whom students may well have devoted around half of their studies) but did have a disproportionate number of questions on Scottish history, despite regulations which make clear that English history will take primacy and the fact that most tutors do not teach Scottish history. I was told that this was the result of “a one-woman campaign”, i.e. a Scottish don on the faculty who deliberately skewed the paper towards Scottish history despite the fact that almost nobody teaches it. So when I moved to London I asked my tutor how I knew that what she had taught us would actually be on the exam and how I knew that the examiner would share her refreshingly traditionalist approach to teaching history, and I was astonished to learn that in most universities course tutors set and mark exams, which does actually make sense.

          Yet another disadvantage is that while there are lectures they are often only tangentially relevant to what is covered in the tutorials and to what may or may not come up on the exam. So there could be a brilliant series of lectures on religion during the reign of Elizabeth I, but no obvious way of incorporating this into one’s tutorial work or exam preparation. Also, in the Oxford system a lot of papers can be studied at any point in a student’s Final Honour School course, meaning that one could be studying British History 1500-1700 in Trinity Term, but the lectures may be in Hilary Term of the following year, when one’s tutorials will be on something completely different. For my Further Subject paper there were classes (focusing on primary sources) and tutorials (focusing on essay topics), but the classes and tutorials were held a year apart! This wasn’t by design: it happened that in my year only two students wanted to take the option, so they gave us the tutorials then and said it would be fine to take the classes the following year, which was of course totally chaotic and meant we didn’t have the opportunity to allow the classes to inform our work for the tutorials.

          You say that there is more contact time, but an Oxford student can often have just one hour of contact time per week. At the universities where I have studied and taught standard for an undergraduate full module is 20 hours of lectures, 20 hours of classes, and one-to-one supervision in office hours (or by appointment). The lectures and classes run concurrently and are taught by the same tutor or by tutors who work closely with each other. Exams and coursework essays are set and marked by the same people who teach the courses. There is a lot to be said for this system. It does not have the same glamour as the Oxford tutorial system, but it is in many ways a more rational way of structuring a course.

          • SVM says:

            At the crux of Davies’s argument and case studies seems to be the paradigm that the ideal situation is for the lecturer of a given paper to also be the student’s supervisor/tutor/&c. This may be the case if one should perceive the purpose of the teaching as examination preparation. However, if one takes a more intrinsic approach to education, valuing learning for its own sake, then the plurality of perspectives obtained when different facets of teaching are taken by different academics, who may opt to focus on different ideas and case studies, is surely a most locupletative feature of the system. Davies’s detailed discussion of British History 1500–1700 is so sophisticated precisely because he has encountered those different foci, rather than laboured under misapprehensions about what “British History” of that period involved (e.g.: England and Henry VIII).

            Now, a plurality of approaches can lead to incoherence (and Davies has enumerated some of the issues, although some may be more attributable to laziness/miscommunication), but I still think that it is important to expose undergraduates to diverging opinions, rather than limiting them to one approach. A department where all the academics “read off the same page” would, in my view, be very problematic.

          • Alex Davies says:

            Yes, there is something in what you say, and that is one potential advantage of having a very large faculty such as the Oxford history faculty, and yes, again, there is more to university than passing exams.

            On the other hand, we do have to acknowledge that passing exams is one important outcome of a university education. This is probably all the more true these days when there are so many university graduates and such fierce competition for graduate jobs. Once upon a time a 2.2 was considered to be a good degree, and even a 3rd was pretty respectable. These days a 2.1 is the absolute minimum outcome worth having and many jobs and postgraduate courses in reality require a 1st. There is also no longer the deference for Oxbridge graduates. When I went up to Oxford people of an older generation still had the expectation that an Oxbridge degree would set one up for life. By the time I graduated I discovered that that just isn’t true any more. Old snobberies have died out and graduates from other universities are now competing on a level playing field with Oxbridge graduates. It is therefore perfectly reasonable for a student at any university to expect that his or her studies will be geared towards obtaining the highest possible marks in their final exams.

            What is called for is at a bare minimum some kind of overall direction of studies. In the case of Oxford there should at least be some kind of centralised curriculum, some communication among tutors and examiners, some attempt to hold tutorials and lectures concurrently and to ensure that students are actually made aware of what lectures they should be attending (when I was up we just got a list of lectures and had to work out which ones seemed relevant to our chosen papers). It would also be good if there were a way of matching students with other students taking the same papers. When I was reading for my Final Honour School my Special Subject was the only part of my course for which I actually got to meet other students in my year who were taking the same papers. As a postgraduate in London I discovered that it was actually very helpful knowing people who were studying the same material.

            My experience of an Oxford degree paper could be summed up as: 8 hours of one-to-one contact with a tutor, access to a fantastic range of libraries, and access to a range of lectures bearing some degree of relevance to the tutorial subjects. For further and special subjects one could add access to 8 hours of classes focusing on primary sources. It has sometimes occurred to me that if I wanted to experience something like an Oxford degree course again all I’d need to do would be to take out membership of a decent library (the BL, the University of London libraries, etc.), write 8×3,000-word essays on a series of loosely connected topics, employ a PhD student to give me 8×1-hour tutorial sessions for feedback on my essays, and seek out public lectures on related topics (e.g. universities, museums, places of worship, Gresham College, the Bishopsgate Institute, etc., or even sites like YouTube). It would achieve much the same thing.

          • SVM says:

            Re “Once upon a time a 2.2 was considered to be a good degree, and even a 3rd was pretty respectable. These days a 2.1 is the absolute minimum outcome worth having and many jobs and postgraduate courses in reality require a 1st.”:

            Not quite true: obtaining merely an upper-second in each year of the Cambridge Music Tripos has not prevented me from pursuing postgraduate studies (including a fully funded AHRC doctoral studentship). Although it is undoubtedly a disadvantage to have only an upper-second, it is not the end of the world, and it is really unhelpful to propagate such myths.

            Re “There is also no longer the deference for Oxbridge graduates.”:

            That depends on the context. A few months after graduating from Cambridge, I started doing private tutoring, and I can assure you that for some clients, the fact that I studied at Cambridge was critical in their selecting me, and then sticking me when I raised my fees! More generally, being a Cambridge graduate still carries some weight in many fields, although it is not the only type of “pedigree” that may be advantageous.

            Re “there should at least be some kind of centralised curriculum, some communication among tutors and examiners, some attempt to hold tutorials and lectures concurrently and to ensure that students are actually made aware of what lectures they should be attending”:

            These precepts are perfectly compatible with the “supervision” system, and did largely exist in Cambridge in my time (exception: in one case, one of my supervisors was unaware of the examiners’ reports for previous years, until I sent them to him — nonetheless, he was an excellent supervisor, and the reports did not make a huge difference to his teaching, except to help him reiterate certain points in the final weeks). It sounds like the other place, by comparison, has shoddy implementation/co-ordination.

            Re “It has sometimes occurred to me that if I wanted to experience something like an Oxford degree course again all I’d need to do would be to take out membership of a decent library (the BL, the University of London libraries, etc.), write 8×3,000-word essays on a series of loosely connected topics, employ a PhD student to give me 8×1-hour tutorial sessions for feedback on my essays, and seek out public lectures on related topics (e.g. universities, museums, places of worship, Gresham College, the Bishopsgate Institute, etc., or even sites like YouTube). It would achieve much the same thing.”:

            First, could not a similar thing be said for any university’s undergraduate course in an arts/humanities subject? Secondly, would Davies have been able to do these things independently at the time when he matriculated at the other place as an undergraduate? Would any 18-year-old (or older first-time undergraduate) have the initiative, knowledge, and discipline to do these things independently?

          • SVM says:

            Corrigendum: for “sticking me when I raised my fees”, read “sticking with me when I raised my fees”

        • Rob Keeley says:

          SVM – sorry – KCL.

  • Cosi says:

    If Cambridge’s music course today is anything like it was in the 1980s, 24th is a lot too good.

  • Anon says:

    Sad to say this reflects my experience at Cambridge a few years ago. On one occasion we all showed up for the first lecture of what was meant to be a new term-long course, only to be told that the esteemed academic in question hadn’t got around to preparing anything and that we’d be giving presentations to each other to fill the time. We knew bugger all about the topic so it was a bit of a joke. And while we spent months studying the weird and wonderful interests of the profs – squiggly 12th century notation anyone? – I never once went to a lecture on Mozart.

    Everything was redeemed by the playing and singing I did in the university orchestras and my college choir and the opera society, which has set me up for life. But from what I could see most of that activity seemed to happen in spite of (rather than with the support of) the Faculty.

    • Mercurius Londiniensis says:

      Ah well, you should have gone to the other place. The late Brian Trowell’s lectures on Mozart operas were some of the wittiest and most insightful I have heard (and Mozart was by no means the centre of his scholarly work).

  • Jackyt says:

    Durham! Aah! Wonderful university. So glad it came top.

  • John La Bouchardiere says:

    Since when did student satisfaction equal merit?

    • Will Duffay says:

      Since the right-wing marketisation of everything became the principle driver.

    • Mike Schachter says:

      They are consumers! But then who will judge merit? A course students like may be excellent or may be just easy. What and whose is the gold standard?

      • John La Bouchardiere says:

        Indeed. This is especially true when students must pay for study themselves. However, by their very nature, students lack the expertise to be their own judge — at least until many years later, when they have had time to reflect on their own lives and career. As it is, students being considered clients makes it very hard to fail them, even when they do not meet the requirements to pass, and letting them rate every aspect of their mentors’ work inevitably drives down standards and grade inflation.

  • Winger says:

    The Guardian’s intentionally absurd list has achieved its purpose: it’s being linked to and widely discussed on the internet. This is the only reason 99% of these ranking lists, broadly speaking, exist. A substantial number of them purposely will rank Harvard and Yale #2 and #3 and put UC Riverside in first, just to gin up controversy and attract attention from dull people.