This week College held a 21st birthday bash for UROP (which apparently is Imperial's scheme for helping undergraduates get experience of research work over the summer).
Many of the scholarships that are awarded to UROP students are provided by the City & Guilds College Association, so I was invited. Since it was taking place in 170 Queen's Gate (the Rector's plush residence) I thought I'd pop along.
Upon arriving I tried to find some students talk to. (After all, UROP is supposed to be there to help undergraduates develop.) This was more challenging than I had anticipated. Firstly, the invite had said that all UROP students would be at the event, but I couldn't find more than about a dozen. (There were twice as many old fogies milling around, though). Secondly, most of the students seemed to recognise me and made an indiscreet attempt to move away as soon as I tried to talk to any of them. Eventually I managed to corner a pair of materials students who seemed to be too scared to run away. Striking up a conversation, I soon realised that they seemed to be genuinely enjoying their summer work (unlike myself) and seemed to think it would help them with their degrees.
My conversation was interrupted by some old fogie who suddenly decided to make a speech. Apparently he was the UROP co-ordinator, and was retiring. I can't remember most of what he said, but one thing stuck in my mind. "The UROP scheme was modelled after its MIT equivalent," he proudly declared, before ranting about how much more money MIT have for their UROP-type scheme.
- MONEY IS THE KEY
Now, money is a big thing for most students. One thing that I quickly gathered was that most of the UROP students present weren't that interested in money. It seemed that they didn't really need to earn much money. That sort of situation is nice for some, but for many of us it just doesn't cut it. Some of us need to earn money just to pay for our living costs in term time.
Imperial supposedly recognises that people need to earn money. So about 20 bursaries are made available to UROP students. Each one is a whole £1000. For ten weeks work, that's pretty crap. Even office receptionist temps in London get paid better than that. But it gets worse. The students I spoke to said that because brusaries were allocated to supervisors, they often got shared between students. So, you could have to share that £1000 with one or two other students (taking you below the minimum wage...). Alternatively, you can work for some IT firm, or a merchant bank and earn £500 a week (or more). Tough choice.
The fact is that if College really believe UROP is beneficial for students (rather than a cheap way of hiring temporary researchers) then there needs to be an appropriate level of funding. The £1000 bursaries from the CGCA are piss poor (though very welcome in the absence of anything else).
- FUND RAISING
Imperial claim to be following the MIT model. They should follow this up by providing MIT levels of funding for UROP students. The new Rector's plans for securing large amounts of money from wealthy alumni presents an opportunity to bring UROP up to scratch. Each year MIT raises $40 million from its alumni specifically to fund its undergraduate research scheme. By comparison, Imperial UROP students compete for funds from a pool of just £40,000.
Of course, weather this opportunity is taken up or not, is another matter. Neither the Rector, nor any of his prinicpal officers were present. To be fair, Bill Wakeham was - but he seemed to be prefer talking to his Links Club friends rather than any students.
Perhaps undergraduate research is not really as important to the College as it likes to make out?