Living the dream

Overseas-education | Crystal Wu 23 Mar 2021

Oxford and cambridge universities are two of the most prestigious in the world and the finest in the UK.

Sending their children to Oxbridge is perhaps most parents' greatest wish, and Brian Ng is a student who has made that dream come true.

A St Paul's Co-educational College graduate, Ng attended the University of Cambridge for his undergraduate and master's degree and is now doing a PhD at the University of Oxford.

"There's like a kind of rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge. People don't mean it for real, but people do joke about the rivalry all the time," said Ng.

But with every misstatement comes an ounce of truth, and while both schools may sound synonymous in a lot of people's minds, they are, in fact, quite different from one another.

One of the differences Ng spoke of is the flexibility offered. Although Ng admits that he could only speak from the perspective of a science student - he was a natural sciences student at Cambridge and is working toward an Oxford doctorate in chemical biology - he explained that Cambridge takes in students with a broad-based program, but Oxford allows students to choose their fields before starting in the university.

"I think in Oxford, you just apply for a narrower area, even though after you get admitted to that course in the first year you have to learn a lot of basics about other branches of science as well," Ng said.

"I guess if you already know which course you want to do, then both Oxford and Cambridge would work for you. But if you're not sure, maybe it's good to apply to a broader program like the one in Cambridge."

This was exactly Ng's case. He said: "It was a good fit for me because I knew I liked science, but I didn't know which area to specialize in back in high school. It was definitely nice for me to explore different areas before I specialized."

The name Oxbridge comes with stereotypes of students who dedicate their years to study and nothing else. While Ng disagrees that it is the case and there are different types of people in the universities, he admits that students there are still very rigorous in learning.

One of the most distinctive things about studying at Oxbridge is the small class size of their tutorials, or supervision, depending on which school you go to.

"I found those classes very intimidating at first as the group size can be as small as two people and your supervisor can be the world's best expert in the subject."

Luckily, he eventually found most academics to be quite nice and slowly felt more comfortable interacting during those classes, which he said were tough but helped him learn and develop.

"This is a very humbling experience as I had to constantly confront my limitations and set goals to improve them."

But all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and life at Oxbridge is not just about studying. Ng often has drinks and dinners with the academics, who generally share a close bond with students.

He also got to travel around Europe, which he considers the best part of studying in Britain.

"Not now in Covid times, but [before] there were really cheap flight tickets from London to essentially all of Europe," he recalled.

"You could just get on a weekend getaway trip with return tickets for less than HK$500, and you could spend a decent time in Prague or in Vienna."

Although Oxbridge may be the dream for many, Ng warns that it may not be the school for everyone, especially those who prefer studying and learning independently, as the Oxbridge teaching style is unique with many academic discussions.

He believes that the Oxbridge environment best suits students who enjoy voicing out their thoughts and communicating about what they have learned.

"This is an eye-opening experience and it is incredibly motivating as well. It really makes you think about what you want to do in the future and how you can contribute to making the world a better place."

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