The Fourth Estate


It’s remarkable how easy it is to get a degree from this university. The expectations of the students, the standards we are meant to meet, are microscopically low. Five hours of class a week, three assessed assignments, and two exams – this is my semester. I will repeat that exact pattern three more times, and then graduate. A St Andrews joint degree in English and Philosophy boils down to very little work, a minimum of effort, and four years of patience.

So why the four years? It would not be preposterous to expect ten hours of class and six assessed assignments a semester. Or twenty hours of class and twelve assignments a semester. Those are not absurd standards to meet. I’ve certainly worked harder than that, in the past. I bet you have, as well.

If we were allowed to double up on classes, surely we’d earn the right to graduate twice as fast. Why does the administration insist on stretching our time here as far and long as possible? It’s peculiar, to say the least. Thought provoking, to say the most.

I’m an American. I’m more familiar with the American education system than the Scottish or English models. I readily confess this. I am also aware that the English and Philosophy departments differ significantly from the other schools of St Andrews. Perhaps (in fact, almost certainly) the workloads for Economics, Astronomy, or Mathematics honours are astronomical in comparison. Those aren’t the schools I’m interrogating here. My focus is on the Arts schools.

I have a close friend at Boston University, studying pre-law. Or, I should say, he studied pre-law. His university allowed him not only to double up on classes, but even triple up. In fact, there was no limit to how many credits he could pack into a semester. He got his degree in two years. I seethed with envy. Now he’s working on a second undergraduate degree “for fun”. He’s no more intelligent or harder working than many of the students I’ve encountered at St Andrews. He just found a more suitable, more efficient, venue to work within.

Studying at St Andrews is expensive. I’m not talking about the university tuition controversies – as an unaffected American, that’s not a topic I’m qualified to discuss. What I am talking about is the extreme expense of housing in this town. Most students living outside of halls – which, overall, is most students at St Andrews – probably pay between £300 – £500 pounds a month for their rent. This ranks the town of St Andrews as among the most expensive university towns in Europe.

If a particularly motivated and inspired student were allowed the opportunity to double the classes they could take, and therefore the credits they might earn, then they could graduate twice as fast, and save half of the money on housing and tuition they would have otherwise spent.

There is no question that student debt is an issue at almost every university – whether in America or Britain. What I’ve recommended might not eliminate student debt outright, but it would certainly help significantly.

So the question is, why does the University of St Andrews expect so little of us? Why do the administrations of many university schools, particularly those of Philosophy and English, insist on devaluing the worth of the degree they issue? Why can’t we work harder, and earn more?

I think there is something terribly wrong here: a dysfunctional and hypocritical system too readily bought into, and unquestioned. As editor of the Viewpoint section this year, I have tried my best to preach the gospel of Doubt, of Suspicion, and Scepticism. The topic I’ve confronted in this column is one I’ve constantly found myself butting my head against. Maybe I’m not alone.


  1. A fourth year student taking single Honours English will have just 2 hours of ‘contact time’ per week. The expectation is, of course that we will fill in the suggested 18+ hours in their own (overpriced) bedrooms or at the (clogged) library.

    Apparently the university is striving to increase this mysterious ‘contact time’ to bring us in line with our English cousins, who manage easily to snag a degree in 3 years. Let’s be honest, do we really need two pre-honours years? Of course they are billed as giving us a more diverse C.V or a chance to dabble in something not previously offered at the attendees high school, but are they necessary?

    If one knows (as many do) the subject they wish to pursue to honours level, why can they not get there with haste? Accelerated courses (where students may immediately enter into the 2nd year of study) are only offered to a select few science students.

    Perhaps these quibbles of contact time secondary subjects will be ironed out in the near future. However, as a resident of this town for nearly five years I would say that four was more than enough.

  2. Emma, predictably enough, I agree with you completely. I was unaware that select science students could skip to second year. That fact only enrages me further.

    One thing I didn’t have room to argue for in this column is the most obvious advantage of graduating faster: all that time you don’t spend at university, you spend competing in the job market. It’s a huge head start. But St Andrews seems to hold us back from it, forcing us to wait for a whistle at the starting line.

  3. Why not try and enjoy the time you have away from studies rather than complain about it. Join a club or society, play a sport, learn a language or musical instrument, do something extra-curricular!

  4. Two things which I find confusing about your article:

    If you feel you would be more suited to the American university system, why don’t you study at an American university?

    Also, do you actually only spend 10 or 20 hours a week thinking about your subject? During my 3rd and 4th honours years studying for a degree in Classics, I can assure you that we all spent far more time than the required ‘class time’ working on our degrees or further developing ideas relative to our subjects but not necessarily covered in tutorials or seminars; similarly with friends who did degrees in other langauges and even History and IR. Perhaps you could fill your time making yourself more employable when you do leave by either working or volunteering?

  5. AG Graduate –

    Thank you for your comment, and your concern. It was inevitable someone would eventually raise the points that you did. I do fill my time with making myself more employable. I intern with a literary agency and participate in several societies. However, I still wish I was graded on more assignments, and had more opportunities to interact with my lecturers and tutors during the week. Do you really disagree with that?

  6. Well done JH Ramsay on a brilliant and insightful article. I have 6 contact hours a week for English at Nottingham University but still have time to hold done a 9-hour job, committee position on one society and dabble in 2 other societies, on top of having plenty of time to socialise, see my boyfriend on the weekend and watch TV. I’m not saying I want more work-its quite nice having a lot of time to do nothing, but it also feels sort of pointless.

  7. On the main point, yep one spend more time at night school than the average arts degree in the UK.

    ” a select few science students”
    This is an ill informed comment. Science is progressive, in that one learns concepts of increasing complexity in a logical order. One can not introduce super conductivity without quantum theory or Diels Alder without frontier orbitals. Scottish Highers (for whom the 4 yrs hons was set up) equip students with a certain level of concepts. A level by being a year longer equip to a more advanced level. Thus students from England with A’s at A-level would find much of first year repetitious, so they can either have direct entry or do other subjects. Scotland has introduced Adv Highers (a further year) again covering much of the 1st Uni year. The English University system designed for three years is built upon a different school system. One of the things that is rather depressing is that arts students always see themselves and their experiences as representing the whole student body.

    Do science, in final year most of us spend 40 hrs plus every week in lecturer’s research labs doing experimental work.

  8. Jim, thanks for the clarification. I am not surprised that you have 40 hours (plus) of work each week. But I am jealous. I don’t see why Arts students can’t have 40 hours of contact time with researchers and lecturers as well. I know I don’t speak for everyone, but personally I learn best through conversation and debate, as opposed to just reading one or two perspectives. Perhaps the science model can be applied to the Arts.

  9. JH Ramsay, no problem on the main issue I am with you.

    Arts students are getting ripped off pretty much everywhere in the UK. However I have to say some/many? of them like it this way. Nice and easy.

    I blame lecturers but I also blame students. Surveys, class reps etc always want to do less work (or at least a vocal part do).

  10. I think part of the problem is that class sizes continue to swell. Throughout my time as an undergraduate in the School of English, classes actually got bigger between first and fourth year (in first year I was in a tutorial group of 5) by the end of my final year I was never in a room with less than 20 people. If you speak to faculty members, they will recall to you the structure of modules in the 1990s that allowed tutors to see their students everyday and actually get to know them. The trouble is, there just aren’t enough staff to teach all these students in appropriately sized classes, supervise dissetations and do all the marking work that would be required to deliver this kind of education. There is also not the physical space! I think this in turn breeds complacency, as what motivation is there to do extra reading if you are going to be lost in a sea of 20 voices? I am now taking a taught masters, and believe me, you start to see the benefit of smaller class sizes. While we are not graded on quite as many assignments as you suggested Mr Ramsay, we are expected to prepare a sizable amount of work each week. Alongside my 3 modules (1 more per semester than at undergraduate), I am also managing to work a 15 hour job, direct a show, and sit on a committee- working harder doesn’t actually mean you get a less rounded university experience! I honestly believe through the intensity of this course I have learned more than I did in the duration of my undergraduate degree. It also gives a far more realistic depiction of real life- it’s probably better to get used to working a 40 hour week than learning the hard way when you graduate. I certainly agree with your points, except rather than cutting the time it takes to do a degree in two I would rather cover twice as much material. However, I do question whether departments the size of the school of English would be able to deliver this style of education given their current resources and the amount of students that pass through their doors each year.

  11. J.H Ramsay – I couldn’t have put it better myself. As much as I appreciate the extra time I have to take up other activities in the town and make the most of my time here, it does seem somewhat peculiar that a “full time” undergraduate at what is supposedly one of the most prestigious UK universities is also able to put in 18 hours a week in a bank, and run the business side of The Saint (which is probably another 18 hours a week if I’m having a bad week!!)

    Don’t get me wrong, I am busy, but that’s no thanks whatsoever to the university system. In fact, if I didn’t have a job and/or wasn’t involved with The Saint – my weekend would begin on Tuesday at 11am.

    Surely this is a system that needs to change?


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