The Cambridge-MIT Exchange: an ungraceful end to an era
The Cambridge-MIT Exchange (CME) has ended after 15 years of offering a unique direct enrollment at one of the best European universities, the ability to learn on a rigorous education system, and the opportunity to explore Europe. Cambridge students love the hands-on challenge of MIT, and MIT students experience the relatively relaxed terms with few homework sets. I enjoyed coxing for my college's boat club, joining an art society, and re-discovering my joy of running along the River Cam. However, the experience of the 2016-2017 cohort of CME was tainted by overwhelming administrative issues, lack of communication, and the tangible lack of concern for our academic or personal well-being. After hearing news of the program's end, a few alumni of the exchange are rallying to revive the program; however, their years of removal from the program and its flaws shield them from the ways in which the program is unfair and, at times, harmful to MIT students.
I will explain the principal errors that need to be resolved before MIT renews any exchange relationship with Cambridge University and its colleges.
The exchange abruptly ended because British Petroleum (BP) withdrew their financial support for Cambridge students. While participating in CME, MIT students pay MIT tuition, and Cambridge students pay tuition to Cambridge University. Current British law states that British universities can only charge their students 15% of tuition while studying abroad, so BP funded 85% of their tuition fees. The issue with this circumstance is two-fold. First, the BP funding only benefits Cambridge students, so the Cambridge administrators and Cambridge organizers of the exchange should bear the burden of finding a new source of funding for the student fees. Their inability to do so shows both disorganization and a lack of commitment to the exchange. Secondly, British tuition fees are only £9,000 per year for EU members in comparison to the $48,452 that MIT students would pay before financial aid. Although MIT adjusts financial aid for students studying abroad, MIT students are paying magnitudes more for inferior administrative and mental health support systems, lacking tutorial services, and limited course selections. This is wholly unfair to MIT students, especially those ineligible for financial aid.
Cambridge University is divided into 31 autonomous colleges, each with its own endowment, its own claim to teaching staff from various departments, and its own private residences for students. Colleges can be as influential on a student's experience as the departments they choose. MIT students on CME swap places with a cohort of students from Cambridge, and this includes taking their "place" in their respective colleges at Cambridge. In my situation, I was placed in St. Catharine's College, which, including me, had only two computer science students in my year. Along with another MIT student, I was forced to attend supervisions at Churchill College where the supervision groups were regularly upwards of 15 people when they were meant to be 2-to-3. I was met with repeated resistance from my college and no help from the CME administrators when I asked to take the mock exam given to the other computer science students at Churchill College because it was for "college members only." I regularly had supervisions at 9 or 10 p.m. on the weekends because of the small teaching staff and lack of available times. A member of the 2015-2016 cohort also was placed in St. Catharine's and complained of similar unfair treatment, especially in comparison to what was offered at wealthier colleges. Not only were his experiences ignored, but when the same issues resurfaced with me, the Cambridge side administrators only intervened once the situation had deteriorated to the point that I wanted to leave the exchange after Christmas. The system of directly and semi-blindly tying MIT students to a college hinders their opportunities and diminishes the responsibility for CME administrators feel to help students.
From informal talks with other members of the 2015-2016 cohort, the lack of communication was the most profoundly felt issue of the exchange. The former CME coordinator for the MIT side left her position in Spring 2016 after recruiting students for the exchange and conducting interviews. After she left, MIT students received almost no guidance about how to choose classes, where we would live, or how to plan the very important junior year while studying abroad. Once in Cambridge, the decentralized nature of the colleges and the fact that the Cambridge-side exchange coordination is very engineering-centered expanded the communication issues. Questions about which classes would receive MIT credit were unanswered; some students were left off their college's enrollment lists; requests to drop classes were never fulfilled; we lost access to our Cambridge academic records without warning; and emails about exams or transcripts have been regularly ignored by the Cambridge side coordinator. In a typical year, the MIT coordinators come in the fall to check in on students; however, this year, they did not meet with us until February. While they met with us one-on-one, their visit provided no alleviation to the issues students faced. The profound lack of communication left us feeling forsaken by administrators on both sides.
The alumni who wish to continue the Cambridge-MIT Exchange are only concerned with finding a solution to the funding issues while ignoring the vast amount of work needed to fix the existing system of college assignment and communication that prevent the exchange from fulfilling its potential. MIT has issues of its own to resolve in its student exchange opportunities, and should not only take on the burden of finding funding for Cambridge nor the burden of resolving their administrative issues, simply in the name of continuing the exchange. The exchange ended due to all of its unresolved issues and the way in which these issues affected funding. The exchange should not be continued until all of these issues are adequately reviewed, reported, and resolved by the universities and colleges involved.
Miranda McClellan is a member of the MIT Class of 2018.