The Reality Gap
‘Explore your interests and say yes to your future,’ urges the British Council Education website – ‘by choosing a respected UK course and a valuable qualification.’
There’s nothing I’d like better! I spent my third year abroad in Edinburgh, and fell in love with Scotland. I did my MSc here, and am enrolled to start a PhD this fall. I hope to eventually settle here, bringing my ‘fresh talent’ to benefit my adopted home.
But the barriers are considerable. While the British Council gushes about ‘affordable’ UK study and claims ‘there are many grants, scholarships and awards available to help fund your studies in the UK,’ the reality is much less optimistic. Only a small percentage of students are eligible for an extremely limited number of scholarships, and competition is fierce. Financial need is not taken into account, so wealthy students can snatch up awards while poor students must do without.
However, all the bubbly marketing leads students to believe that funding will come easily – until reality sinks in. By this point, it’s likely they’ve already been accepted to a department and the deadlines for most scholarships have passed. With so many ‘great opportunities’ for funding, the obvious assumption is that some personal deficiency led to rejection. The choice becomes excessive debt or abandoned dreams, and either way, working-class students have effectively been put in their place. It’s a two-tier system, with double standards based on a student’s financial resources. Of course, this is how things work in the ‘real’ world outside of academia, right down to the fantasy of an equal chance for everyone. Academia simply provides a convenient microcosm to examine.
The British Council also offers cheerful advice on student loans, noting the ‘new development’ that American students can take out Federal loans to study in the UK. Unfortunately, the maximum low-interest Stafford loan barely covers overseas tuition fees. To finance the full cost of a three-year PhD, including bare-bones living expenses, a student would have to borrow over $93,000 – a figure that would make anyone think twice.
Employment is another option, but international students are only allowed to work 20 hours per week, and well-paid jobs don’t usually hire part-time employees. Besides, intention to work is not considered as a source of funds for the purposes of obtaining a student visa, so students must have considerable bank balances when they begin.
Prospects, ‘the UK’s Official Graduate Careers Website,’ has a friendly, casual tone, and a bit more honesty in its description of the situation: ‘the majority of students who come to the UK for their postgraduate education support themselves through private means.’ They emphatically state that ‘universities really do want you to enroll on their courses’ – but the reality of funding suggests that universities only want wealthy students. Between the sugar-coated truths of Prospects and the encouraging lies of the British Council, the overwhelming message is that working-class students need not apply.
Most other student advice websites link to the British Council and Prospects sites to deal with the dirty work of talking finances – which means two websites hold an enormous amount of power over student opinion. The elements found on these sites are indicative of educational funding on an international scale. Postgraduate education is promoted as a tool for social mobility and professional development, accessible to anyone – but in reality, it’s accessible to those who can pay, and those who are willing to take on enormous debts.
Meanwhile, the UK is doing itself a disservice in excluding highly-qualified, motivated, passionate students who happen to be from the wrong social class. American students have much greater access to funds back home, but are choosing to pursue the more expensive option of study in the UK. Rich students who can afford to pay should do so, rather than being given awards they don’t need. Instead, those funds should be made available to poorer students who would otherwise be forced into excessive debt – after all, graduates beholden to American banks cannot contribute 100% of their talents to British society.
One simple change in application procedures – a question about personal or family income – would have enormous and wide-ranging effects on the number of international students who could study in the UK. Rich students would pay – bringing in more revenue to universities – and working-class students would benefit from grants, freeing them to focus on their research rather than working outside jobs or falling into debt. In this system, the quantity and quality of research carried out by international students would increase, raising the reputation of British research even higher. With all the other changes taking place in the British education system, isn’t this a change worthy of consideration?