St Andrews is elite – but not elitist
Our university has been painted by many different brushes with as many differing strokes of intention as an ‘elite’ university. The term is as loaded and volatile as a bootleg firework, and as with all explosive (rhetorical) devices it places those who should deploy one under immediate scrutiny. It is for that reason that this prompt, positing whether our university is an ‘elite’ one, or one for the ‘elite’, presents a stumbling block that places one at risk for a tragic instance of miscommunication.
More than that, though, it presents a false dichotomy. Both clauses are, in fact, true: our university is an ‘elite’ one, populated by students who are ‘elite’ by virtue of their academic achievements. A certain proportion of these students are also the children of a more traditionally defined ‘elite’.
It is the presence of this aforementioned demographic – the conventional ‘elite’ – that has led a number of local organisations, including the Scottish National Union of Students, to criticise St Andrews. Last year, the NUS blasted the admissions policies of the University for inviting what it considers to be too few students – 14 out of 11,000 – from economically deprived backgrounds.
The arithmetic does indeed seem unfair, perhaps indicative of foul tendencies or class-conscious favouritism. But the paucity of severely disadvantaged students at St Andrews has nothing to do with any sort of bias on the part of admissions; rather, it hinges on multiple variables that have to do both with the accomplishments of the University and those of its students.
The first variable is to do with the achievement of the University as a whole. St Andrews has a highly prestigious academic reputation, both as a research institution and as a place for undergraduate education. It has most recently been ranked by the Times as the fourth top university in the United Kingdom, and number one in Scotland. Almost 89% of students at our school gain a first-class degree or 2:1, and 80.5% land professional jobs or go on to graduate-level further study. These kinds of rankings, although not gospel, attract a great number of highly qualified applicants.
The second variable is a natural consequence of the first, and that is one of selectivity. The University of St Andrews accepts slightly fewer than one of every ten applicants it receives, making it comparatively as selective as some of the world’s most recognisable heavyweight schools. Dartmouth University admits about 10.5 per cent from its applicant pool, Johns Hopkins 17.69 per cent, Brown 9.6, and Princeton 8.9.
So what, then, do we make of the charges by the NUS? The picture becomes clearer when it is revealed that only 200 Scottish students from the bottom quintile, 11,000 in total, made the minimum grades: three As at Higher Level exams. This is not an issue that is unique to Scotland, nor to St Andrews. Extensive research has drawn a strong statistical correlation between low socio-economic status and educational difficulties.
To address the red-trousered elephant in the room, yes, St Andrews is an elite university – but not elitist. The socio-economic makeup of this university is no different from that of many other top universities, reflective not of a malign favouritism but of a need for educational reform.
St Andrews students are of the highest class
Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College, University College, Edinburgh, London School of Economics, Manchester, Kings, Bristol, Durham, and York. The Times Higher Education rated each of these schools higher than St Andrews in its latest global rankings. With a score of 56.5, St Andrews ranks at 108th in the world, narrowly beating the universities of Sheffield and Sussex by a third of a point.
Despite the list of schools of ahead of it, it is not uncommon to hear students – particularly those from the UK – casually rating St Andrews as third right behind Oxford and Cambridge. While the latter two may be centres of the academic world, St Andrews has much more to it than a mere gathering of intellectuals.
The Times Higher Education ranking reflects the nuanced charm of our university. The score is based on an index of five ratings (teaching, international outlook, research, industry income, and citations), which are given on a one to 100 scale. While the categories of teaching and research receive a somewhat low mark of 43 (a full 48 and 52 points lower than Cambridge, respectively) the University receives an outstanding 86 for its international outlook, which is higher than Cambridge and nearly equal to Oxford.
Isn’t it deserved? Our little Scottish town hosts a university that draws 40 per cent of its students from overseas. As such, this university holds the cosmopolitan reputation for educating some of the most elite young ladies and gentlemen from all over the world.
Is there any other school where you can go out every night of the week and have your cocktail bought for you by a friend from a different county each time? At one (or any) of the numerous balls or other formal soirées in St Andrews it is quite nice to lean back in one’s chair and, while tightening one’s black bow tie with one hand and sipping one’s cool champagne with the other, gaze around and see Brits, Americans, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, French, and Italians all laughing and drinking together.
When one steps out of the library on a Sunday afternoon there is a certain romance to hearing the average St Andrews student complain of deadlines that are too close to fit in before the next fashion show not in one, or two, but any number of languages. Only in St Andrews will you cover each continent in the seven-person queue at the cash point.
Still, there is so much more to St Andrews than simply being international – it is a bulwark of British history, having educated numerous government officials and even a member of the royal family (and his wife). In addition, the University is celebrating its 600th anniversary, with each weekend’s event superior to the last. At the academic summit, principal Louise Richardson commented on the odd fact that, despite the current state of the economy, many students in St Andrews continued to pursue degrees in subjects such as classics and art history. This is no coincidence, however: while the school may lag behind in the provident departments of science and medicine, the teaching of archaic humanities is of the highest quality.
Is St Andrews an elite school? Rankings can never tell. An education can never be quantified, however much it may be qualified. One can be sure, however, that the students of St Andrews, regardless of their nationality or major, are of the highest class.