Taskeen Adam| Cambridging the Gap

Last week I had the honour of meeting the lovely Dr Pauline Essah, who honestly made my week (and possibly changed the course of my future – but more on that another time). Every word she said resonated in my heart. Being Ghanaian, she told me her story of coming to Cambridge (some 15 years ago) and making the exact same observation of ‘Where are all the black people?’ She told me of her attempt to find others in the Centre for African Studies and how she only found people who were researching Africa but weren’t African themselves. While Cambridge had the international buzz to it, it wasn’t truly international if it didn’t have significant representation from all continents. After years of deliberation on the matter, she along with other key academics in the University started up the Cambridge – Africa Programme, directed by Professor David Dunne of the Department of Pathology. The paragraph below explains the programme:

A core aim of the Programme is to strengthen research capacity in African institutions, and to support the next generation of African researchers to become internationally competitive and self-sustaining leaders. It is also vital that knowledge exchange takes place between Cambridge University and Africa, through mutually beneficial collaborations. The Cambridge-Africa Programme therefore links up Cambridge University researchers, lecturers and students to their colleagues in Africa, and provides them with advice and support for a range of Africa-related research projects and activities (e.g. teaching, volunteering, development and consultancy work, etc.). Cambridge-Africa also supports Africans currently studying at the University of Cambridge, and African alumni.

The programme has been running for 5 years now and is growing in leaps and bounds. Besides all the initiatives listed above, the programme has been monitoring the statistics on the matter (only 214 of the 6718 students admitted to Cambridge in the 2012-13 academic year were African!) and trying to find ways of improve these numbers. They also aid in finding funding and scholarships/fellowships for African students (see their website for anyone interested: www.cambridge-africa.cam.ac.uk ) and their partnerships with universities in African countries raise awareness about the opportunities for studying in Cambridge.

A truly international institution needs a truly diverse student-body
A truly international institution needs a truly diverse student-body

In my chat with Pauline, we discussed some of the factors that have led to this problem, and why we aren’t seeing much change. A big challenge was the awareness factor. Not many African students are aware of the application systems and procedures for the University of Cambridge. Another is the actual mind set of individuals or the perception that Cambridge is not for Africans (and indeed Cambridge doesn’t really sell itself very well in that regard, but the Cambridge-Africa Programme is helping to change that!).  Language could be another issue, although it was noted that other countries with similar language barriers make it through. However, students from any francophone African countries tend to pursue further studies at French universities.

Tripped up at the first hurdle
Tripped up at the first hurdle

One of the biggest problems by far though was the application fee that one has to pay to apply to study at Cambridge. The application costs £50 if done online and £100 is it is paper based. The fact that the price is doubled for a paper based application makes no sense as this is probably a more disadvantaged applicant that doesn’t have access to internet. A bigger problem than this is the actual payment process. Credit cards are not popular/universally available in all African countries and yet this is the preferred and most obvious method of payment for Cambridge applications.  Another problem for students applying for research-based post graduates studies is finding a supervisor. Before you can get accepted, you need to find a supervisor and it is highly unlikely that a supervisor will choose an applicant from an unfamiliar university in Africa when they have so many other options. With all these circumstances, it makes it near impossible for an African from an underprivileged background to even get past the application process!

I could go on forever writing blog posts about the problems that exist but this is a change challenge after all and it’s about time I focused on making an actual change. While there are MANY things that need to change in this situation, I have decided to focus on and advocate for one, that is, to drop the application fee for developing countries. This fee is actually more likely to be about filtering out mass applications than it is about administration costs. Both the Cambridge-Africa Programme and the Cambridge Trust are trying to identify how such fees can be waived for African (and non-African) applicants who truly cannot afford to pay. I have decided that this will be my call to action. I have no idea where to start but I will figure it out. Changing any rule at Cambridge is a very big task and I may have bitten off more than I can chew. Nevertheless, I will try my best and Insha’Allah (If God wills), it will be changed.

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