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This is the best Computer Science course in the UK

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About a fortnight ago, we got an email from Canadian reader David Powell asking us if we knew any good computer science courses in the UK because he was thinking of popping over here to do one. We hadn't a clue, so we asked you.

Fortunately, we only left the story on the front page for a short while because we've received just under 300 emails on the topic. The delay between the story and the results is down to this huge correspondence and not because we forgot about it, okay, is that alright?

As ever, the emails came from a huge range of people - current, past and future computer science students, lecturers, recruitment specialists, industry folk and busy-bodies. And, as ever, it consisted of informed, useful but also frivolous and daft information.

Many didn't play by the rules of course. Dave had said no to Durham (thought it dull) and no to London universities. Didn't stop people going on about both, or readers that didn't live in the UK, recommending foreign courses. Such emails were read but discarded.

Thus, we simply added up all the recommendations for all universities. If someone didn't like a course, this counted as a minus one. In total there were 54 recommended UK courses. We've cut these down to a top ten. And they are (net votes in brackets):

1 Edinburgh (20)
2 Warwick (19)
3 York (15)
4= Cambridge (13)
4= Manchester (13)
6 Leeds (11)
7= Aberystwth (9)
7= Glasgow (9)
7= UMIST (9)
10 Oxford (8)

Below we've pasted a montage of what people have said about the various courses. Some of the comments may appear contradictory but this'll be because they come from different people. Many people wrote saying the same thing, so we've cut this down to one comment.

Huge numbers of people saying how great the city, bars, nightlife is. We've tried to cut as many of these as possible (everyone has a great time at university). Also, we've cut out hopefully all comments about places being well-respected. Of which there were plenty.

Aberystwyth inspired the most number of comments and the most in-depth as well. Perhaps this is as good an indicator as any. We cut them down quite harshly in the end.

Here they are:

Edinburgh

Great city; leading edge departments and research; modern well-structured courses. Very good modular degree options, with a great deal of expertise within the university, very fertile academic community. More esoteric than plain vanilla computer science. But courses are only any good if you want to become a lecturer or do real low level stuff.

Warwick

Excellent student facilities and community. Quality teaching. A good mix of practical and theory. Loads of flexibility from day one; brand new facilities at faculty; into Linux.

Offer a variety of CS related disciplines from straight CS to those with an Engineering or Business. Course is challenging but well-balanced, with a fair proportion of theoretical material in addition to software and hardware engineering courses, plenty of hands-on coding.

Undergraduate course a bit theoretical. If you only have an average interest in every form of mathematics you'll probably hate it. Highlight included writing a pong game in 6502 assembly driving an oscilloscope as the screen.

Course was over subscribed which meant that coursework submitted in the first term wasn't marked till a week before then end of the year. Lecturing was poor, and in some cases the lecturer had to cut the
lecture short due to him getting mixed up about issues with interrupt handling.

York

Strong research department with bleeding edge Computer Science development; strong links to industry for safety-critical and real-time systems; nice campus; lovely town, great pubs and decent beer. Great course with a solid scientific grounding + excellent options in the latter stages, excellent campus, beautiful city. Courses are diverse, interesting and very reputable.

Cambridge

Very theoretical; only learn old traditional languages like Modula-2, Pro Log, Pascal. Java only an option in the last year. But major advantage: a lot of IT work being done at Cambridge, associated with new Microsoft research lab. [We've had a number of readers write in to say the course details are out of date and Cambridge has upgraded its course. Old-style languages have been put on the back burner and Java is now taught from the first year onwards.]

Very theoretical course, based heavily in maths and formal methods but University has recently been adding 'real world' stuff like Programming in Java and there's even a token effort e-commerce
course in the 3rd year.

Manchester

Biggest CS department in UK; well-known as having among of the best courses. Invented computers
on Manchester Uni, and are currently very into databases/data warehouses, visual stuff to do with AI and neural nets and the designer of the original ARM processor is one of the professors. Lots of industrial links, too. Teaching is fairly shitty, but that makes for better research

Leeds

Broad in content and therefore interesting. Superb courses and a choice of anything from hard sums (Theoretical Computation courses) through to exciting stuff (a whole tranche of graphical techniques courses, through to AI, whatever). Department heavily into AI.

Large number of Computer Science/IT related courses, with flexible modular system. Staff are very good (both in terms of teaching and research) and the admin department is unusually well organised.

Aberystwyth

Starts out based on one of three threads: hardware, comms and telematics, then robotics and AI. Fails to offer full range after third year. Heavy emphasis on practical experience and 'proper' coding methods, lifecycle models, requirements, specifications etc. But almost no emphasis on the 'building blocks' of IT.

For example, no mention of various OS's strengths and weaknesses, little coverage of business cases for choosing technology and only a brief glance at legal/ethical responsibilities. Very heavily biased towards programming, with Java being the current language of choice.

Close links to a number of large companies (Compaq, Sun, BAe, Logica). Good equiptment - loads of sparcs and Windoze boxes. If AI is what you're interested in, then Aberystwyth is a good place to go.

Glasgow

Covers everything from programming, databases, networks, optical communications, artificial intelligence; very good facilities

UMIST

Most respected course in industry; rounded good-quality course giving the foundations of modern computing. Don't tend to get into fads but up to date on the stuff you should know. Might spend first two years writing in Pascal but end up doing courses on some of the newer technologies. Top rated among employers for the Computing/IT Sector. One of the best ratings in the country for research and teaching; all sorts of cool stuff in e-commerce and databases. Friendly bunch and not everyone is a complete nerd.

Oxford

It's theoretical enough that your knowledge won't date, but has enough practical stuff to be fun. Shockingly bad facilities; course didn't relate to the real world at all. Lack of exams quite appealing but deep thinking about theoretical problems rather than real world applications.

So there you have it. But hang on a sec: what do the "official" rankings say are the best computer science and IT courses. Well, we checked out two top ten lists from the Times and the Guardian. Combining the two with 10pts for first place, nine for second etc, we got (from top to bottom):

Cambridge, Oxford, York, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Warwick tied, Manchester and the rest unseeded.

There is bound to be some bias in their systems (the Reg guide is the only true guide). See for example how Oxford and Cambridge are the top two and low-status universities Aberyswth and UMIST don't even get a look in. ®

Related Links

Times top ten
Guardian top ten
UKEAS - organisation for foreign students coming to UK

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