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.