It’s the dream of many Penn students — the opportunity to take a year or two and study at the great institutions of the United Kingdom.
For this very purpose exist the Rhodes, Marshall, Gates, Churchill and Thouron scholarships — the hallmarks of academic brilliance, the sign you have made it and are officially a Very Clever Person Indeed.
Sadly, thanks to the Conservative-led government in the U.K., that dream may now become a fantasy.
Much like their counterparts in this country’s Congress, the Conservatives came into power with a singular agenda — cut the government down to size. To be fair, they have raised taxes as well — but the bulk of the agenda is cut, cut, cut. And through the last year, the government has come to single out one special target — Britain’s world-class colleges.
The government will slash close to one billion pounds ($1.7 billion) from their universities over the next year, hitting both teaching and research budgets.
Don’t for one second think that these cuts will only impact the lesser colleges, pre-degree programs and schools of which you’ve never heard. Every reputable university in the U.K. — including the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and the London School of Economics and Political Science — is a public institution. Reductions in one part of the system flow to all the other parts. The top schools and the top students will be the last to suffer, but suffer they will.
Second, the Conservatives aim to cut immigration in exactly the way that will hurt their universities most. Going into office with a crazy promise to reduce the number of migrants to the U.K. from nearly 200,000 last year to “tens of thousands” by 2015, the Conservative-led government yesterday signaled they would make these cuts, broadly, in two categories — “skilled migrants” and “students.”
Skilled migrants include professors, and so universities have been cut off at the knees — they can’t hire distinguished faculty and can’t attract the best students. But no worries, because the international students can’t get into the country. Ironically, schools like Penn benefit because of somewhat more liberal visa policies in the United States, but Penn students looking for a superior graduate education in the U.K. will become disappointed as U.K. universities slowly lose their edge — disappointed, that is, if they can actually get a visa to travel to the U.K. in the first place.
Here, the Conservative-led government has been insistent: Penn students and their peers will always be able to get visas to study in the U.K., ministers say. Marshall and Rhodes Scholars, true, have nothing to worry about. But this is a hollow victory, as funding for the universities we want to attend is eviscerated, their staff cut by immigration caps and spending freezes and less profitable courses demolished to make way for more profitable offerings in a desperate attempt to scrounge for cash.
The insanity of this confluence of policies cannot be overstated. Rachel Romeo, College senior and recent Thouron winner, confessed she had never set foot in England before in her life — and never would have, had she not been attracted to the top-notch graduate degree in language and cognition at University College London. She admitted, bluntly, that if her degree in the U.K. had not been a world-class program, she would not have applied.
Sourav Bose, Wharton and College senior and Thouron awardee agreed. “The point of doing a Masters of Public Health [in the U.K.],” he said, “is that the degree has a completely different perspective,” one drawing on the U.K.’s unique approach and resources in MPH programs. Diminish that program, he said, and he would have just done his MPH in medical school.
It is students like Romeo and Bose that the U.K stands to lose first by ransacking its higher education to pay down its budget deficit. Penn students — and Britain — deserve better.
Alec Webley is a College senior and former chairman of the Undergraduate Assembly. His e-mail address is webley@theDP.com. Smart Alec appears every Thursday.
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