St Andrews is elite – but not elitist

Thomas Quarton

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

Jake Jose

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.


  1. I think the question remains though of why did only 14 of the 200 students who got the grades to come to St Andrews? Between the ridiculous cost of housing (and the university’s refusal to help low income students find somewhere to live), the costs of must-go balls and the like, the university’s inability to provide scholarships, and the high focus on image, St Andrews does not make low income students feel welcome. The homogeneity of the student body means that most of these complaints aren’t felt by the people so they tend to pretend that they don’t exist when in reality there are very concrete forces that discourage low income students from attending here.

  2. “Extensive research has drawn a strong statistical correlation between low socio-economic status and educational difficulties.” Educational difficulties? What exactly are you saying here? That the fact that people of a lower socio-economic background (your word ‘status’ gave you away a bit here, I’m afraid) are inherently less intelligent? If so, that is incredibly bigoted. The fact that fewer students from more deprived backgrounds make the grades is not determined by their intelligence but by the support and education they have received. Comparing us to other ‘elite’ universities does not make it acceptable to ignore this problem, nor does it excuse St Andrews for being elitist. The problem is a) that poorer young people do not have enough support to meet the entry requirements despite their potential and b) few want to apply anyway because of the elitist reputation. It is incredibly sad that people are discouraged to apply because they don’t think they are the right sort of person. It is not good enough for our University to just throw their hands up in the air and say ‘not our problem’.

  3. C,

    I consider it bad form reply to comments because writing should speak for itself, but clearly I left that point underdeveloped and unclear, and created confusion that I tried to avoid.

    I have an older sister who is a manager of teacher leadership and development in Detroit for the Teach for America programme in the United States. Her experiences in the most disadvantaged schools in the country echo your points exactly. By no means did I mean to imply that it was somehow the fault of those in poor socioeconomic backgrounds that they do not achieve academically. It is the lack of resources in the household and in the schools that contribute that problem to a great degree. I also think it is a scandal that such disparities exist, because it is both a human right and a public good to develop an egalitarian educational system in which a lack of money can’t hold back innate potential. I alluded briefly to educational reform for this reason.

    The point then being, this is a greater issue than one the University itself can address. The issue of educational quality disparity is one Britain – and indeed, all nations – as a whole must address in the interest of being fair and just.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.