The Principal’s Scholarship: excellent idea or exceedingly unfair?

Picture: The Saint

A lot of talk surrounded the University’s announcement a couple of months ago about the winners of the Principal’s Scholarship for Academic Excellence. Many people I spoke to were not happy; they were enraged at the amount of money given to students who could easily not need it. Given the reputation of St Andrews students, many people assumed that those students probably did not need the money, since it is often harder for students who come from more challenging backgrounds to perform highly at such a difficult university. These students, however, are the ones who need the money. Many students who I spoke to had a lot of questions about this scholarship. How do they pick who gets it? Do they check the economic backgrounds of the students? Are students who actually need the money given adequate financial assistance from the University? Where did the money come from? Did it come from a grant specifically designated for this purpose, or did the University take its funding and allocate it to these students?

I sat down with the Vice Principal (Proctor), Professor Lorna Milne, to  ask her about the scholarship and to find answers to all these questions. The scholarship, which rewards the 50 students who have the best academic record in the university, offers 5,000 pounds to students after they complete their third year of study at St Andrews. The scholarships are divided proportionately according to faculty, so there are slightly more in the faculty of Arts, then slightly less in the faculty of Science, and slightly less in the faculty of Medicine. The University does it this way because students who study Maths and Physics, for example, tend to do better since there are right and wrong answers, whereas Arts students are largely graded on essays, which tend to receive lower marks. The difference in average marks are actually quite considerable; the highest average in Science was 19.76, the highest average in Medicine was 20, and the highest average in Art & Divinity was 18.45, but the second highest average was 17.95. However, almost every school within the University had students who were awarded this scholarship.

The University calculates the scores based on the student’s second year marks and honours marks. They exclude first year marks in an attempt to even the playing field for students who may not have had the advantages of upbringings and schools as many other St Andrews students have. They also want to continue to encourage students to play dangerous intellectually; they want students  to take chances on subjects they have never taken before or subjects that may be more challenging than others.

Professor Milne informed me that although students’ backgrounds were not a consideration in this award, they did take a look at the backgrounds of the winners after the decisions were made and found that there were a number of them who came from different backgrounds, such as schools that usually send hardly any students to university at all. There were also a number of mature students who received awards. In addition, the gender breakdown of the winners was proportionate. They tested the methodology before they put it into practice, checking that the way that they were calculating this would not disadvantage any one group, and it has not. Professor Milne truly beamed when she discussed the students who won the scholarships; she described how lovely and deserving they all are.

Many of the winners use the money to fund additional degrees, or to finish paying for their current ones. The University decided to give out this scholarship when the Westminster government took the cap off fees for UK students not from Scotland and students not from the EU. The University decided to use some of the money for bursaries for students with hardship, but they also wanted to set aside some money for students who showed that they could truly perform well. The University is not just about assisting those who need it, it is also about excellence. How could this not be true, after all, considering the student body of our prestigious university? In terms of where the money comes from, it was not money given to the University specifically for this scholarship. The University Court made the decision to allocate the money for this purpose; the University would set aside part of its money for these scholarships. They also used some of the money for  a different scholarship, the Laidlaw Scholarships. However, considerably more money is used for bursaries for students who need the money to pay their tuition, rather than for rewards of recognition.

Still, it does not seem right that students who might not need the money are receiving it, no matter how well they do, instead of students who truly require the money in order to study at St Andrews. No matter how honourable the University’s intentions are, and I do believe they are, it is still unfair that people who are accepted at St Andrews cannot study here because of their lack of financial support. Although it is true that the University can only do so much, it seems rather strange that they are choosing to give the money that is leftover from student fees to students without even checking their backgrounds. Perhaps a better idea would be to award the highest-performing students that come from backgrounds which lack financial abilities. But, to be fair, it would be problematic and controversial to pronounce a cut-off, and various other conflicts would surely arise from this.

Despite the University’s attempt to give all students equal opportunities by not counting first year marks, one year at University cannot undo 18 years of privilege or lack thereof. Therefore, this scholarship, albeit its conscientious purpose, is still not completely fair. But then again, very little in life is.


  1. I think the issue here is the amount of money. I don’t begrudge anyone the accolade of being the best in the university (undoubtedly some will have had an easier time than others but they will all have had to put in a lot of hard work as well as being naturally intelligent).

    I won a full scholarship to my private school and over the 5 years I attended it my tuition fees alone were £70,000. Clearly such an award given to anyone academically able would have been ridiculous (especially as some parents could afford fees that high), which is why my school offered £50-£100 academic scholarships that were awarded purely based on merit regardless of income. This two-tier system makes sense. Awarding someone £5,000 for being clever is galling when that’s more than many get in student maintenance loans. Especially as those of us with jobs (which we need to live) have less time to devote to our studies so it is pretty much out of reach.

    While it is possible for a disadvantaged student to achieve this a non-disabled, non-working, financially supported student will have a far easier time (they have the time and money to study and access tutoring if required). In light of that, these should be purely academic accolades and not come with a large financial reward. Perhaps allocating the money to help fund excellent undergraduates who wish to pursue a masters (notoriously difficult courses to fund) would be a better idea?

  2. No one ever talks about all the middle class kids whose families are squeezed to the limit and aren’t eligible for any grants or bursaries – this is an incentive for those kids to work harder and push themselves to make life a little easier, much like how things actually are in the world of work. Recognition at university should be about your achievements – not how rich your parents are. Scholarships are designed to reward scholarship – bursaries are there to supplement people from poorer backgrounds. To compare or equate the two is just stupid, they’re designed for totally different purposes.

  3. I won one of these scholarships. I’m proud to say that I work 20 hours a week to pay the bills so that I’m not completely reliant on my parents, who are by no means struggling but are not wealthy.
    It was the best and biggest surprise of my life, I would never have applied for it if that had been possible as I wouldn’t have thought I deserved it, but my god do I need it.
    At the winners’ reception we talked about what kind of things we would do with the money, and nobody, even jokingly, said they were going to spend it on shoes or champagne. It’s hard to justify squandering a sum that large. If it had been £500 I think more people would have blown it, but this is truly a life-changing amount of money, and everybody who won it worked hard to get it.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.