London and Toronto are different in many ways. The former is a historical city with well-preserved facades around every street corner. The latter, while shorter on cultural heritage, feels a lot less cramped and is much gentler on the wallet. Two months into my exchange semester at University College London (UCL), I have come to realize that there is more difference between the two than meets the eye.
Without any intention of pushing for changes at our university, I would like to take the opportunity to highlight some of the impacts this difference in location has on the student life experience.
The first thing that leaps out about UCL is how large corporations have established a prominent presence on campus. The winter semester is not even recruiting season for them, yet many still come on campus to build familiarity with their graduate offerings.
For instance, financial firms Ernst & Young and UBS have set up tents in the main courtyard and given out free popcorn; the more adventurous IBM has brought a virtual reality tennis court with Oculus Rift for students to play with into the busy hallway. Others, such as Morgan Stanley and Baker & McKenzie, have collaborated with student clubs to offer seminars on interviews and assessment centers that attract very large crowds.
All this recruiting effort has had a clear impact on student life. For better or worse, more students at UCL seem interested in working for the big corporates and many seem to engage in the job searching process much earlier. Indeed, a number of first-years were among those attending the aforementioned seminars and many will likely participate in the one-week spring work experience schemes big banks offer exclusively to them.
The city has also left clear imprints on UCL student clubs. For one thing, they get a lot more celebrity speakers. Half way through the semester, I have already seen three Nobel Laureates in Economics, as well as the prominent financial commentator Martin Wolf, and Group Chief Economist at HSBC, Stephen King, who gave us his economic outlook for 2015.
Other clubs, while lacking in star power, offer activities that have a distinctly charming British flavour. For instance, the Walking and Hiking club, another one of my favourites, offers week-end hiking trips to the beautiful and muddy English countryside that surrounds London.
Finally, classes at UCL are also deeply intertwined with the city. For instance, its history of art classes are taught in London’s numerous museums; and its money and banking course has even shunned textbooks and assigns, instead, speeches by central bankers or books by former regulators as readings. Perhaps because Britain’s outsized financial sector necessitated a £500 billion rescue package in 2008, a lot of soul-searching has been done on banking regulations: from what went wrong, to what should now be done, to whether a large financial sector is even good for the economy. Taken together, these articles paint a more riveting narrative on banking regulations than any textbook could ever present.
An exchange semester abroad is always exciting. There’s the travelling, the meeting of new friends, and the discovery of a new culture. However, if one stops all that for a moment and contemplates the new setting more attentively, many other interesting little things begin to surface.
Li Pan is a third-year student at Trinity College studying financial economics and math. His column appears every three weeks.