College has a moral responsibility to abolish the scholarship exams

Schols operates as little more than a reproduction of privilege and elitism

The scholarship exams (or schols) in College occupy an unusual place in the campus imagination: often glorified as the hardest examinations students can take, they occupy a symbolic function as much as a material one. However, given the material rewards of these examinations and their huge stakes, we have a duty to interrogate their efficacy and equity within College. 

Offering five years of completely subsidised education, housing, and meals, the system is, without a doubt, a huge investment that College makes into those they consider the best and brightest of the academic community. The mere act of providing scholars with such colossal investment leans into this symbolic mystery around the idea; scholars are not merely a group of people who did well in a certain set of exams when they were 19, but a class in themselves. The symbolic nature of the structure is not only evident in the investment by College, but also the ritualistic practices by which it is surrounded. Every night, scholars can avail of commons — a closed-door meal beginning with Latin prayer, with meals served largely by other students, those engaged in shift work, presumably to pay for the meals College is not providing for them. 

“Schols is a self-evidently elitist institution; it can only function because the vast majority of the academic community do not have access to it.”

Schols is a self-evidently elitist institution; it can only function because the vast majority of the academic community do not have access to it. This is true materially of course (college can obviously not afford to pay for the life of every student) but it also functions symbolically — what is the point of a closed-door dinner, if everyone has the key? Why would one don ill-fitting scholar’s robes if they were handed out for free to all? 

But what is the problem with elitism if it is based on merit? There are many, I think — those who are good at sitting examinations when they are 19 are not more deserving of housing or meals than those who sit exams poorly, or simply didn’t study enough. But even if you believe that being able to write a good academic paper under stressful conditions entitles you to a more accessible education, it is simply not true that the scholarship examinations are a meritocratic system. After all, the exams are promoted as extremely difficult because they are. People tell stories of toiling in the library for hours of their Christmas break because that’s necessary to do well. What is often lost in these discussions is that the time needed to dedicate to the act of becoming a scholar is not time which everyone has access to. Like many things in this world, schols is designed for the rich, for those with access to tutors and expensive books and without the need to work a part-time job to stay afloat. Scholars, then, will naturally bend toward the upper and upper-middle classes. The first problem with this is obvious — the people who need subsidised housing and meals and further education do not get it. We return to the symbolic for the second problem, though it remains important: the elite close ranks, they socialise and live together, and it is always the wealthy who are seen as the best, the brightest, and the most deserving within Trinity College. 

“But fundamentally, this system cannot be reformed — exclusivity and elitism is not a glitch, it is the purpose.”

This problem has not been invisible to those in Trinity. It is clear even to those who are proponents of the system that there are problems. And so, reforms are floated: less examination conditions, some places specifically for access students, or greater accommodations. But fundamentally, this system cannot be reformed — exclusivity and elitism is not a glitch, it is the purpose. Nothing but the abolition of the scholarship exams and a redistribution of the resources used to prop it up will be sufficient. 

Ultimately, it is incumbent upon College to dismantle this system. But as we have seen before, Trinity is usually reluctant to do anything without significant pressure. Members of the Trinity community, both scholars and not, have a moral responsibility to push against a structure that reinforces elitism and takes resources away from those who need them. This is also a responsibility of the Student’s Union, whose talk of welfare and equality must extend to the university in which it operates. 

“Not only should the scholarship examinations be abolished, but those who are in the privileged position to pay for their own education with ease should not sit said examinations.”

Not only should the scholarship examinations be abolished, but those who are in the privileged position to pay for their own education with ease should not sit said examinations. The act of reaping the benefits of the scholarship exams for largely symbolic reasons directly takes an accessible education from someone who needs it. Even if it was not the case – which it is – that the action of a rich person accepting schols is taking it from someone who needs it, participation in this elitist system necessarily reinforces it. 

For some people, the main change schols makes to their lives is a confirmation of their privilege and a nice line on their CV. For others, it is the difference between continuing education and dropping out. For so many, this is a choice they do not even have the chance to make. The benefits which students reap from schols change many lives for the better, but we must imagine a college community where resources are given to those who need them; we will not achieve anything close to an equal and fair college community until we do so. 

Sophie Furlong Tighe

Sophie Furlong Tighe is the Comment Editor of Trinity News.