Jess Ma, a first-year Corpuscle, received what she said was one of very few fully-funded scholarships granted to students in Hong Kong who want to study overseasCatherine Lally

“For a university that seems absolutely committed to attracting the best talent in the country regardless of their background, it seems rather dismissive about the financial context of people from other places.”

So said one international student, who added that “while the average UK student will incur loan [debts] of over £50,000, I had already paid much more than that by second year.”

It’s no secret that an education at Cambridge as a non-EU international student comes with a large price tag. To study most humanities subjects, a student starting their course in 2019 can expect to pay £20,167 per year, while a natural scientist will pay £30,678, and a medic, £52,638.

Along with college fees that range from £6,850 to £12,700 a year, covering teaching and pastoral costs, the money quickly adds up.

Although undergraduate tuition fees of £9,000 for home and EU students since 2012 have negatively-impacted the financial situations of students’ families, for many international students, with no recourse to tuition fee and maintenance loans from the UK government, and a scholarship system one student criticised for a “lack of transparency” and clarity, a harsh financial burden can further aggravate financial difficulties.

Yue Pan is the chair of iCUSU, the campaign group for international students, and the umbrella body for all of the University’s international student societies. Pan, who grew up in Australia, described students she knows whose families use their “houses as collateral” in paying for a Cambridge education, and said the “financial commitment that they make for higher education” is “quite stressful”.

The cost of a Cambridge education, especially if covered by a scholarship or borne entirely by a family, can also deeply impact how students approach their leisure time at University.

Pan said, “I would feel really guilty spending money in Cindies and on alcohol if I knew my parents were working additional shifts.”

She added she has found that “people make the assumption that international students are really rich”, which she believes to be inaccurate. This affected the approach to last year’s University staff strike: Pan said she felt upset when made aware of international students being personally criticised for attending lectures, when for some international students, a single lecture can represent an even more substantial sum of money.

Another student, who receives a scholarship from a private company, said “we have to meet a certain grade requirement, behave appropriately and work for them after graduation.” The grade requirements “introduce additional stress – there is a part of me always worrying”. They are concerned that because the company has “the authority to terminate my scholarship”, the eventual “consequences [would be] severe.

“My family isn’t well off: we will never be able to repay the company”, they added.

“I would feel really guilty spending money in Cindies if I knew my parents were working additional shifts”

One student told Varsity that before he took up his offer to study HSPS, he had to produce a bank statement up-front to demonstrate to his college that his family had enough in liquid assets sitting in the bank to cover his studies for three years – which amounted to nearly $120,000 (£91,554).

A University spokesperson noted that a “requirement of admission” is to declare at the point of a student’s offer that “they have sufficient funds for the entirety of the course”, in order to prevent students from being forced to withdraw mid-way through a Cambridge degree or having to “[spend] time researching and applying for funds to support themselves rather than studying”.

A relatively small number of countries dominate international undergraduate admissions at Cambridge. Of the 1,653 non-EU undergraduates at the University in the 2017-18 academic year, 420 international undergraduates at Cambridge came from China, 265 came from Singapore, 125 came from Hong Kong, and 94 came from the United States.

A student from Nigeria, which had 11 undergraduates at Cambridge last year, said “the international students that come here are attracted mostly by a standard of education which is unattainable in their own countries”, and said that they were disappointed with the “charging [of] tuition fees which would be considered a good starting salary here”.

Even getting to a Cambridge interview can pose a barrier to access. The makeup of the international student body reflects the countries in which Cambridge directly carries out interviews – with academics travelling to an interviewing location to meet with applicants. These international interviews take place in Toronto, Shanghai, Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. Only in New York is interview via video-conferencing software available. Some international students who attend British boarding schools will already be closer to Cambridge in early December.

Belle George is a second-year at Newnham, from New ZealandEmma De Salis Young

As Belle George, a second-year HSPS student at Newnham – who has lived and worked in the UK for long enough to pay home fees but grew up in New Zealand – noted, “there remains no interview opportunities in Africa, Oceania or South America.” She added that, “travelling to Asia from New Zealand for interviews rules applying to Cambridge out for the majority of Kiwi students, bar the elite.”

“Travelling to Asia from New Zealand for interviews rules applying out for the majority of Kiwi students, bar the elite”

Aoife Hogan, a third-year English student at St. John’s from Australia said that when she applied to Cambridge, the University “sent an interview team to Sydney”, adding, “I absolutely wouldn’t have applied otherwise”. This service was cut for those applying for 2017 entry, and Australian applicants are now likely to need travel to Singapore for interview. A Cambridge spokesperson cited “time difference and quality of connection” as making videoconferencing in certain regions “problematic”, adding that they are “looking at ways of resolving this.”

Overseas applicants applying in 2018 must also pay £150 to be interviewed abroad.

One Singaporean student noted that she “never considered studying abroad, until right before the application deadline” due to her financial circumstances, as she had not been “aware that we have to pay so much to apply: there’s a fee for filling in the UCAS form, the COPA form, for the interview, for the test, each costing a substantial amount”.

The Cambridge Online Preliminary Application is mandatory for overseas applicants, and is used “to make arrangements for overseas interviews”. A spokesperson for the University of Cambridge noted, “the cost of an interview overseas is significantly less than that of travelling to Cambridge”.

The same student also cited the cost of a mandatory English-language exam, saying, “if I had known I wouldn’t have applied!”

Along with high tuition fees, however, many international students at Cambridge do receive scholarships, although iCUSU Chair Pan said she would like to see the University make “scholarships and financial support more accessible”.

Pan added that she found the information was “not very well publicised across the colleges” for applicants, noting that scholarship opportunities are extremely variable in different colleges. She noted some particularly wealthy colleges are able to provide high levels of financial support to their students, while she has been made aware of students at other colleges who receive far less.

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Pan added that for “a lot of full-time international scholarships, you have to apply” in advance of October, making the window to apply for merit and needs-based scholarships an easy one to miss. She said, “scholarships are very competitive”, and “even if you’re talented enough”, receiving one is not a guarantee.

Jess Ma, a first-year at Corpus Christi received what she said was one of very few fully-funded scholarships granted to students in Hong Kong who want to study overseas. She said that someone at her school in the year above received it, and their “teachers would encourage us to apply”. Ma found the process “quite competitive”, and did the interview for the scholarship after she had already received her offer – the “interview was conditional upon me meeting the conditions of my offer”.

Ma added that if she “hadn’t got the scholarship … it would have been quite hard for my parents”. She also found it difficult to navigate the Cambridge Trust scholarship service, and said she “had to go through previous recipients” to find out what was available. Her scholarship is conditional upon returning to Hong Kong to work for at least two years post-graduation.

A number of students pointed out that schools outside of the UK accustomed to sending people to Cambridge are more likely to be able to advise students on how to receive adequate financial support.

Another first-year from Hong Kong said they rely on two scholarships: one which is “distributed throughout the year, and is reviewed annually in light of my academic progress”, and another one which requires that she works in Hong Kong after graduation.

They added: “Prestigious secondary school or international school students in Hong Kong are usually from financially-sufficient families, are fairly familiar with the process of application to Cambridge but most students at typical, ... local schools are not.”


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They added that some students who would have required scholarships might be unaware of them, saying that this “limits the kind of person who is able to attend Cambridge to those with stronger financial and educational backgrounds.” Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope recently announced that the University plans to enhance bursarial support for students “from home and abroad”, as part of a £500m campaign to expand the University’s bursary system.

A number of students pointed to what they would like to see more dialogue about high fees for international students from student campaigners within the UK. Pan said that “they’re protesting to their home government and they have a voice … we don’t really”.

Another student, who grew up in China and completed their MPhil at Cambridge, but their undergraduate degree elsewhere, said that funding opportunities had closed before they applied.

They described deeper feelings of culture shock at Cambridge, and compared “entering a traditional university as an international student” to a home student entering a restaurant where “you try to make an order, but see that you pay more than other customers for the same dish”, and are made to feel “recognisably different”.

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