Motivation to work hard is more difficult for some to come by than others, especially when you are caught up in the bewildering rat race that is Oxford University life. In this light, scholarships can be seen to provide a motivation for success that, for many students, is difficult to find.
Yet, this is just one of the many things that scholarships can achieve. They also provide recognition for those who perform at an excellent standard, and make people feel that their work is being acknowledged by their college. The financial incentive offered by several colleges is possibly the sweetest incentive, something with which students can reward themselves in whichever way they like. Exceptional performance is praised throughout other walks of life, in the form of bonuses and other incentives, so why shouldn’t this also be applied to students too? This is not simply an Oxford expression of praise, but a common expression of gratitude for hard work and achievement. Scholar’s gowns provide a visual representation of achievement, and in the same way that graduates have this recognition shown in their gowns, scholar’s gowns show visible achievement within the undergraduate body. Whilst I have never had the opportunity to wear a scholar’s gown myself, I think it represents an apt recognition of accomplishment. I’ve often looked on jealously at the swishing, almost regal, gowns, whilst fumbling to adjust my commoner’s gown into place.
Not everyone who wears a scholar’s gown, however, is awarded it solely on academic basis: some wear it to show musical talent which, much like academic achievement, aids the College. It is not the gown itself that is important, but what it represents – achievement at the highest level.
Wanting the status that the gown represents is not a vanity issue, but shows an aspiration to accomplish the best that you can. To wear the gown is not (to my knowledge) compulsory, and while not everyone wants to be seen wearing a scholar’s gown, the majority of people wear them with pride.
Prelims also gain a greater sense of purpose if scholarships are on the cards, rather than simply only the requirement to pass to continue the course. Scholarships give students a benchmark to achieve at Prelims, especially since Finals are far too faraway for many first years to envision. It’s not quite immediate gratification, but is a clearer goal for Freshers to aspire to. For those who need greater encouragement, scholarships are there to make sure that first year is not meaningless, but rather provide ample opportunity for reward.
In a university that prides itself on maintaining academic excellence, scholarships allow achievement to be recognised throughout the course of one’s degree, rather than merely at finals. Scholarships aim to raise academic standards in a positive way, by rewarding students for working hard.
Admittedly, efforts should be made to ensure that college practices in awarding scholarships do not vary so wildly as to be unfair, and rewards should be regulated between colleges. Nonetheless, the important thing is that some sort of award is available for undergraduates. Such awards are a bonus, and do nothing to degrade the worth of students who do not achieve a first, but merely reward those who do. Scholarships are not a criticism for a 2.1 or anything below, and many graduate schemes and jobs accept a 2.1 as a benchmark. If there were no incentive to work beyond this, I suspect fewer people would aspire to earn a first.
Scholarships are a fitting prize for a great achievement, and while there is reward in itself for achieving a first, scholarships provide the icing on the cake.
Scholarships are widely respected as symbols of achievement in first year exams. Purporting to reward hard work and intelligence, it may seem difficult, at first glance, to argue against them. Yet, upon closer inspection, I believe that Oxford should not award scholarships after Prelims. This is because scholarships are fundamentally misguided as rewards, reinforcing as they do structural inequality, and encouraging a narrow view of what is important about a student’s experience of Oxford.
Scholarships are, importantly, monetary rewards. Proponents of scholarships argue that these rewards incentivise hard work, or are fair because they are given to the deserving. Both of these views are misguided. High-achieving students ought to be motivated by intellectual challenges, by the satisfaction of achievement itself, not by a token sum taken off their battels.
Indeed, we might go as far as to say that if the accolade of a scholarship represents a greater motivation for hard work than the development of one’s critical faculties, then that person does not deserve a scholarship, as it would be awarded for the wrong reasons. Any such reward should be predicated on a love of learning, not on a love of recognition.
The most important reason why Oxford ought not to award scholarships is because they encourage systemic inequality. The argument that scholarships chip away at inequality by acting as grants is a hollow one: after factoring in the cost of the compulsory scholar’s gown (which can be as much as a third of the annual grant), the termly value of the scholarship can be as little as £40 per term. Where gowns are successful, however, is in the perpetuation of the self-same inequality and elitism which Oxford is trying so hard to divest itself of.
Those who fail to become scholars are left clad in the “commoner’s gown”, whose name asserts a hierarchical divide, which at its worst manifests itself as a split between the haves and the have-nots, the successful and the unsuccessful, to the detriment of the values we would like to preserve as a community.
Just rewards ought to be allocated according to effort made throughout the year, not merely according to test results at the end of it. As a result, scholarships are not the rewards for academic success that they pretend to be. A genuine attempt to reward academic merit ought to be the result of deliberation amongst tutors on the subject of the general application of each student, not the result of cramming and stressful exams. In fact, it’s even possible that scholarships will, in the long run, be harmful for those who win them, since the resulting sense of intellectual superiority could lead to complacency, and a decline in hard work in the run up to finals.
Lastly, scholarships promote a dangerously narrow view of what should constitute the Oxford experience. They stress the importance of achieving a First in Prelims, but they fail to address the wider opportunities for learning and personal development that are on offer. The first year at any university is not just about exams; it is also about adjusting to a new lifestyle, and developing independence. We should be encouraged to judge neither our academic progress nor our personal worth on the basis of exam performance.
Though scholarships are superficially appealing, they are both largely ineffectual, and actively reinforce some of the most damaging Oxbridge stereotypes. They succeed only to cement inequality within the University and cloud our perception of what is important for our intellectual development. Far from encouraging academic progress, they could be seriously hindering it.