St Andrews: Elitist or Elite? Fabian Society debates image and reality

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Is St Andrews elitist, or simply an elite university? That question, which continues to plague the University, was asked on Monday, 18 February at the St Andrews Fabian Society’s first event of 2013.

Most recently it has found its way into the national press with the viral ‘Champagning’ video released before the winter break.

The answer, according to speakers, was either: yes, it is elitist; or no, that is simply a perception that needs to be stamped out in order to attract a wider range of students.

The panel consisted of Robin Parker, President of NUS Scotland and Avalon Borg, SRC Member for Widening Access, standing in for Students’ Association President, Freddie Fforde, who was ill. A third scheduled panellist, Labour MSP, Jenny Marra, had to drop out due to constituency issues, turning the event into an informal discussion.

The wide-ranging debate included the possibility of implementing a cap on the University’s intake of students from privately funded schools, the prospect of collaborating with other universities, and whether more importance should be placed on student potential or on academic results.

Critical of St Andrews was NUS Scotland President Parker who attacked the University’s track record of admitting few students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This, he said, displayed a lack of responsibility by failing to reach beyond private-school pupils. He cited the fact that last year St Andrews accepted only 14 students — 2% of the total student population— from the 20 most deprived Scottish postcode areas (SIMD20).

SRC Member of Widening Access Borg countered that the University’s image is the main deterrent for applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. She called upon more students to challenge the elitist image of St Andrews.

“It is our responsibility as students to challenge [St Andrews’ image]. The University is always going to look like the bad guy when they start defending that small cohort of elitist kids,” she told The Saint.

She said that it is essential to look beyond the numbers, and to study the context. 

A different measure, she said is the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who graduate. At St Andrews, it is 94.4%. At other universities more students drop out after the first year, she said. One example is Edinburgh Napier.

“They are setting up a lot of kids for disappointment and failure and we’re not willing to do that,” she said.

She also praised the University’s commitment to improving these figures and its target of accepting 19 students from the SIMD20 for the next academic year.

Borg added that plans to visit state schools outside of Fife are currently being drafted. She said it was important that pupils from more disadvantaged areas understand that “those kids who were champagning don’t represent the majority of us”.

Speaking to The Saint, Avalon Borg insisted the quality of debate did not suffer from the low turnout.

“In the end we had a really great discussion and it was actually a really nice evening with students and people in the audience just having a talk about education and what goes on in this University and what Robin Parker thinks as a non St Andrews student about our widening participation programme,” she said.

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