A bold path to success: how St Andrews broke the Oxbridge duopoly

A bold path to success: how St Andrews broke the Oxbridge duopoly

Perched on the edge of the North Sea, miles from anywhere, without even a railway station and less famous than the local golf course, the University of St Andrews would seem to have no business being one of the best universities in the world.

But not only has St Andrews thrived for centuries, it’s done so on its own terms. In recent years, it has embraced the equality and diversity agenda to widen its student intake, without joining the corporate dash for growth seen among its peers in London, Birmingham and Bristol.

Now, for the first time since the Guardian University Guide of 2003, St Andrews has disrupted the Oxbridge duopoly, overtaking Oxford to be ranked second overall among UK universities, thanks in part to its academic excellence, but also to its track record in student achievement before and after graduation.

“We think it’s remarkable that a small university like St Andrews – which has a miniscule endowment in comparison to those of Oxford and Cambridge – competes so effectively with them,” says Sally Mapstone, principal and vice-chancellor.

Before coming to St Andrews, Mapstone was at Oxford, starting out as an undergraduate at Wadham College and later completing a doctorate on medieval Scots literature. Her academic career there culminated in one of the university’s most senior posts: that of a pro-vice chancellor. But in 2016, Oxford named the then St Andrews principal Louise Richardson as its new VC, and Mapstone went in the opposite direction as her replacement.

“I think St Andrews has many of the qualities of Oxford and Cambridge, although it’s not a collegiate university. It’s a small, highly international university. It has things in common with them, but it is also dramatically different,” Mapstone says.

“I don’t really like these ‘is X as good as Y?’ questions. But can St Andrews be counted in the company of Oxford and Cambridge? Yes, I think we are showing it can.”

While St Andrews has always been highly ranked, in the latest table it overtakes Oxford by a sliver, helped by outstanding performances in some of its traditional strengths, such as economics.

Adding value

St Andrews students are among the happiest with their courses and the quality of the teaching on offer, with more than 90% of current students saying they are satisfied. And a very high proportion of them go on to employment or further study after graduation, thanks to the emphasis the university puts on career initiatives such as internships.

St Andrews also outdoes its Oxbridge rivals on improving and adding value to the academic performance of its students, partly because of the success of its widening participation schemes, some of which are more radical than even the latest announcements from Oxbridge envisage.

According to its most recent figures, nearly 50% of the undergraduates St Andrews admitted from Scotland were eligible for contextual offers that relax entry requirements for students because of their background or family circumstances.

That increase – from one in three Scottish students admitted five years ago – has been the result of a determined effort to meet access targets set by the Scottish government.

For several years, the university has been offering so-called “gateway programmes”, a profoundly different route into some of its most academically demanding courses, including medicine and physics, for students who otherwise would struggle to get a look-in. These programmes offer sharply reduced entry criteria for Scottish applicants and take advantage of the longer four-year undergraduate degree in Scotland by using the first year to bring disadvantaged students up to speed. They continue the remainder of the course alongside their peers.

“The key thing is that it isn’t just about recruiting people, it’s about supporting them while they’re here. Helping our students to flourish is one of the distinctive things people may not realise about what we do here,” Mapstone says.

The Scottish government’s targets are challenging: 20% of each institution’s intake must come from Scotland’s most deprived areas. Mapstone endorses the goal, but admits it is tough, with St Andrews competing for potential applicants against its national rivals.

Students at the University of St Andrews.
More than 90% of current students at St Andrews say they are satisfied with the teaching on offer. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

St Andrews’s strong reputation as an elite institution can hamper its efforts to widen access. “I entirely recognise that St Andrews is associated with history and tradition, and with a certain style of person. But what our new strategy is seeking to convey is that we welcome all styles of people,” Mapstone says.

“St Andrews should be better known for its inclusivity and its diversity. Last year we were at the Pink News awards because we were nominated in the public sector category for our LGBTQ+ engagement. We’re very proud of our record on LGBTQ+ issues, but would people automatically associate St Andrews with that? No they wouldn’t, but that is part of the community we have here.”

Lucy Hunter Blackburn, an independent observer of Scottish higher education based in Edinburgh, says: “Official monitoring only looks at Scottish students, so ignores the relatively advantaged demographic of the fee-paying ones – from the rest of UK and overseas – which may have some impact on the university’s ability to attract recruits from a broader background.”

St Andrews recruits heavily in England’s schools, both state and independent, and receives around 10 applications for every place awarded, with few apparently dissuaded by the additional cost in money and time that a four-year degree requires.

The royal connection

Applications from outside Europe are also strong, from India and – unusually for a British university – the US. Part of the reason is St Andrews’s international reputation as the university that educated Prince William, who met fellow student Kate Middleton there. “It gave St Andrews a certain status, because people are so interested in the royal family,” says Mapstone. “I think also because Prince William and Catherine espouse the sorts of causes we believe in: sustainability, mental health care. We believe in a combination of formal and informal here, and I think they encapsulate that.”

Paloma Paige, the president of St Andrews’s students association, says her decision to come here from California had nothing to do with the royal graduates and everything to do with the quality of the international relations degree she wanted to study. “US universities are far more lecture-based, students take copious notes, and it all seems very restricted. Here you get to take the initiative. It’s smaller, but there’s a lot of diversity among staff and students,” Paige says. “It’s not posh. In fact, I was surprised at how ‘un-British’ it was. The institutional diversity means you’ll find people accept you, no matter who you are.”

Paige is an example of Mapstone’s maxim: “Where people identify quality they will seek it out.” Asked if the university’s remoteness and size are barriers to recruitment for staff or students, Mapstone responds that application rates continue to rise from all parts of the UK.

“It’s not in the North Pole. I wouldn’t say it was profoundly remote. You have to make an effort to get here, but everyone who does thinks it’s worth it. It’s less than 90 minutes from an international airport, so let’s not overdo the remoteness.”

Admissions director Julie Ramsay says when recruiting in the south of England, she has encountered hesitation about the journey – not from students but from their parents.

“It’s the parents who will take me to one side and ask, ‘I’m worried about my child going to Scotland, what’s it like up there?’”

Regardless of its location, St Andrews could fill its places many times over. While the number of Scottish students – who pay no tuition fees – is fixed by the Scottish government, it could copy its English counterparts and fill its halls and coffers with many more students from England, each paying £9,250 a year.

But that sort of rapid growth, according to Mapstone, is not an option for St Andrews, in a town of just 17,000 people with the North Sea on one side and farmland on the other.

“We don’t intend to go beyond 10,000 students; we’re around 9,000 at the moment. Our reason for that is a simple one: we’re in this beautiful Fife town and we have limited capacity, but also we think 10,000 students is about right for the kind of education we offer and the way we offer it.”

Guardian

 

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