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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

800 Years of Politics

My college, Hughes Hall. Nice, but nothing super amazing.

King’s College. People really do go to school there.

Back home, we have a fairly simple way of viewing university structure. The president and provost sit at the top, under them are the deans, and under the deans fall the various departments and responsibilities of the university. Here at Cambridge, however, we have constituent colleges which hold a great deal of power, making university politics and policy a great deal more complicated. Some universities in the U.S. (Rice comes to mind) have constituent colleges as well, but they have more of a social function and mainly exist to promote diversity among the class. On the other hand, the college at Cambridge which you are a part of determines a great deal – your education, your social class, and your overall opportunities provided. For example, Wolfson is a relatively poor modern college which is located far from the city centre. Wolfson students have decent housing, are mostly foreign graduate students, and often keep to themselves. On the other hand, St. Johns is a very wealthy college. The students of Johns are located in the best part of town, have fantastic amenities (having your own turret in a castle must be nice), and are treated to all sorts of luxuries (Michelin star chef, free wine, special recruitment events, etc.). Should a St. Johns student want to study abroad or play a sport, the college will pay their fees or buy them equipment in order to further their experience. This disparity in wealth and experience leads to interesting situations as the colleges have completely separate budgets from the university and are under no obligation to share their money with it or with each other. In recent years, Cambridge has been facing many budget shortages leading to research cuts and difficulties paying faculty salaries. On the other hand, the wealthiest colleges of Cambridge often have yearly surpluses in the hundreds of millions of pounds. Because the colleges hold so much money, the university simply cannot act without their support and cannot regulate many things which the colleges control.

Recently, the UK is debating whether to raise tuition for its public schools leading to the belief of many that Cambridge will re-brand itself as a private university. This, of course, has been met with a great deal of controversy as Cambridge currently only charges 3000 pounds a year in tuition for UK and EU students. If it goes private, students will need to pay more like 20,000 pounds a year in tuition, making it completely unfeasible for the majority of students at poorer colleges. However, should the big colleges choose to flex their financial muscle and push the initiative, the smaller colleges will have little say in the matter, as a Cambridge without a Trinity or Johns is simply no longer Cambridge. It’s a bit like if we ran Congress without the Senate as an equalizing body. Ostensibly, every college is equal under the Cambridge banner, but in reality, size matters. It’s going to be fascinating to see what happens next, as the policies and standards the university establishes in the next five years are going to greatly affect its status as one of the great research and educational institutes in the world. Despite all the upheaval, two things remain certain: Cambridge must find ways to support its world-class research, and the largest colleges will continue to dominate the political life at the university.

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