Last week saw Principal Louise Richardson heaping praise on the University and its students after a strong showing in the latest edition of the Times and Sunday Times University Guide. And quite rightly too – we placed third overall, our strongest showing to date on the list, and below only Oxford and Cambridge overall.
However, a detail conspicuously absent from Richardson’s email was the University’s ranking in a number of other key lists; namely, those for working class and state-educated undergraduates, which revealed that St Andrews’ reputation as a bastion of the elite is well-earned. These latest results are undeniably cause for celebration, but should also act as a sobering reminder that, in terms of equity, elitism and accessibility, the University of St Andrews is falling some way behind its peers. St Andrews has forged its own path to the top of the league tables, operating outside the Russell Group and NUS, and emerging from relative academic obscurity of a few decades ago to challenge rival institutions boasting many more students and greater research funding. It seems to me a colossal shame that this one-time underdog of top-rate academia is not looking out for the underdog undergraduates.
The Times and Sunday Times survey ranked universities according to a number of qualities. Beyond the usual points of academic interest, The Times also looked at class representation within universities. Such studies offer a useful glimpse into the effectiveness of university initiatives to attract those from lower socio-economic groups to St Andrews. According to the survey, a full 87% of students studying at St Andrews can be described as ‘middle class’. Meanwhile, 59% of students were state-educated, a figure that is strikingly low when one considers the fact that that figure sits at 93% across the country as a whole. Ultimately, the University ranked 125th (third from bottom) for state school admissions and 124 out of 127 for numbers of working class students.
The results from other top league universities, meanwhile, demonstrate clearly that this is not simply a symptom of being a top-ranked institution. The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) (our equal in terms of international intake and prestige) fares significantly better in terms of both state school admissions and students from a working class back-ground, and yet is the university with the most applications per place in the country.70.9% of LSE’s student body is made up of state educated students, and it stands as one of the most highly-regarded institutions in the world. Recent efforts made by other elite universities also appear to be leaving St Andrews in the dust. What are they getting right that we’re getting so badly wrong? When Cambridge, that old bastion of elitism, is accepting more state-educated applicants than you, you simply have to take a long, hard look at your selection procedures.
Elite universities like St Andrews are always going to feature disproportionately high numbers of middle-class and privately educated students; a mileu of educational and social factors virtually guarantee it. But the University has a duty as an academic institution to offer opportunities to the brightest students from across the country, regardless of back-ground. By any objective measure, in this it is failing. As high ranking universities like LSE and the continual increase in successful state schooled Oxbridge applicants are demonstrating, it is simply not the case that academic excellence is the sole preserve of the privately educated middle-class. Grades are not the be-all and end-all of academic ability; overemphasising them benefits those lucky enough to have attended schools which specialise in doing so. Most universities are recognising this in their selection procedures, and being rewarded with more successful and diverse student bodies.
Social elitism of the scale we are experiencing in St Andrews adversely affects the entire university. From limiting diversity of opinion and experience to earning our student body a national reputation that few of us could ever be proud of, it all goes to make us socially irrelevant. Many potential applicants write us off as a finishing school for the off-spring of the wealthy in London and the US – on this evidence, they have a point. We’re nestled at the end of Fife, but for all we have to do with neighbouring communities, we may as well be based on Mars. I know that’s not a state of affairs that the majority of staff and students are happy with. A more diverse student body is undeniably in the interests of everyone; meeting and engaging with people from different backgrounds is meant to be an integral part of the university experience. But more than that, students are not more or less worthy of a university place because of the quality of the school that their parents could or could not afford.
Above all, Pat Mathewson, our Association President’s comments part of the St Andrews profile for The Times highlights the underlying contradiction within the University at present. When asked for the worst feature of St Andrews he responded, “The belief that students are from a posh background, a detriment to the calibre and diversity of students that we have here.” In many senses our diversity and multiculturalism is some-thing we can be proud of, but unfortunately the statistics demonstrate that this ‘diversity’ only extends to very particular groups.
To achieve meaningful change, the powers-that-be must take a step back and accept that we are mostly a university of privileged people, instead of constantly denying that this is the case. Rather than burying our head in the sand, acceptance of this fact could allow us to actively try and attract a more diverse selection of applicants by substantially changing our image and perhaps our admissions criteria. I don’t believe that simply telling sixth-formers that we have a varied student body is enough when the easily researchable facts sung-gest otherwise. We should accept that we have a problem and invite exciting, intelligent applicants to come and change that. It is important to remember that this clearly isn’t just St Andrews problem. It’s nationwide, and the fact that The Times decided to even include this category this year speaks for itself.