Edinburgh Castle is near the University of Edinburgh Image credit: donsimon / 123RF Stock Photo
Edinburgh Castle is near the University of Edinburgh
Image credit: donsimon / 123RF Stock Photo


It is an irony of the US to UK postgrad scholarship community that the existence of Rhodes at Oxford and Gates and Churchill at Cambridge have had little impact on the preference for those institutions among applicants of other scholarships.  In a different world students interested in Oxbridge (as they are jointly known in the UK) would apply to Rhodes and Gates and Churchill leaving Fulbright and Marshall to enjoy the full institutional diversity their scholarships offer.  Both Fulbright and Marshall can boast applicants that apply to other universities but it has not been without effort on their part and they need to remain vigilant.  The question is why? Britain has a number of world ranked institutions and most US applicants to these programs do not have undergraduate degrees from the top two institutions in the US. Why then do they often ignore what other UK institutions have to offer?

Last summer I was on a panel at a symposium organised by and for scholarship students from many programs.  I was discussing institutional diversity explaining that members of congress expect their state institutions to benefit from Fulbrights.  Equally the British government is concerned that students on their scholarships embrace the full quality of UK universities (which are with the exception of the University of Buckingham,  all state funded institutions  like the state universities in the US.)  I told the story of a conversation with a very pro Fulbright official at the State Department who told me that too many US and UK students were veering toward Oxbridge and the coasts in the US. UK students he said should be as happy to take a Fulbright in Iowa as at Stanford and Americans should find their Fulbrights as satisfying in Northumbria as in Oxford. The students appreciated this serious misreading of the UK scholarship environment and burst out laughing.  “You are laughing” I challenged “But what are your home institutions?” They saw my point but I also understood theirs.

In a sense everyone in scholarships is in it a little for the prestige. But there are degrees. And the stakeholders see the source of prestige emanating from different places. Scholarships see the prestige in the quality of their scholars and in the amount of their scholarship awards. In their hearts they would like students to reciprocate by regarding the mere fact of having won the scholarship as sufficient grounds for prestige.  In reality they know this cannot be. Scholarships are only a means to an end.  Both the scholarships and the students want the students to study at elite institutions, and in reality if no student went to the very top university in each country they might be worried. That is far from the case however so for the moment scholarships are concerned lest their scholars –  so deep in their thinking –  cast a very shallow net when it comes to selecting the foreign institution because they have not bothered to research other institutions (or even look at rankings) or are mainly seeking additional prestige. Some of this is due to numbers. Reading application after application for the same programs at the same universities makes you start to wonder.

US students are used to thinking of the ivy league as institutions for higher degrees and sometimes naturally transfer that thinking to the UK application when they apply for Oxford. “I’ve had an excellent education and some fun. Now I want respect as well,” the applicant appears to be saying. Even if the panel members are American and understand the mentality it can backfire on the student.

As we all know Iowa is world famous for its writers program. As for the University of Northumbria, it may not be in the top ten but British multimillionaire Johnny Ive, the chief designer for the technology that is the iPAD is an alum (and no he did not “supplement” it with another university degree.)  If pressed every bright student would have to admit that a university cannot “make” the student or even provide what they need if it is the wrong place for them.

National scholarships overseas expect that students will have done their homework on where the innovation and expertise are actually located. It is also important for students to research the experience they will have if they apply to a particular college at Oxford and Cambridge.  They are different and are meant to be so! Some will also have more resources than others.  Finally, scholarships are all to some extent concerned with cultural curiosity and experience.  This means that a student who can satisfy a research need outside of Oxbridge (or indeed London) and decides to explore a regional culture can chalk up some points.   Above all remember that national scholarships have a national view of quality. That means that students who have not discovered that the real in-country expert is not at Oxbridge but at another institution is unlikely to make it to the short list.

As for students who cannot avoid Oxford, Cambridge and the London universities because the expertise they seek is only there, they will need to demonstrate it in the application and at interview. International scholarships want candidates who are in it for the education rather than for reasons of prestige.