Conquering the world

Illustration: Milan Cater
Illustration: Milan Cater
Illustration: Milan Cater

The first people to promote St Andrews to American students didn’t even have a guide book when they arrived in Washington DC. In fact they weren’t at all familiar with the US capital’s geography. As they ate lunch and soaked up the autumnal sunshine they pondered whether Congress sat on Capitol Hill or the White House. “I don’t think we really had any idea what we were doing there. It was ridiculous,” Celia Boddington recalled recently. “I mean, there we were, about to give a presentation at Georgetown University on why American students should come to St Andrews, on the strong bonds that existed between St Andrews and the States and we didn’t know where the country’s legislature sat.” Irked and embarrassed by their ignorance, they resorted to consulting banknotes to solve the mystery. “When we told Anthony [Levi] later, he just rolled his eyes,” Celia said.

It was October 1982 and the St Andrews student population bore little resemblance to today’s melting pot. 51 per cent of first years were English while 38.7 per cent came from Scotland. Around 3 per cent of incoming students that year were from overseas and the majority spent only a semester or two at the University. The idea of active international recruitment had not crossed anyone’s mind.

But the previous year Professor Anthony Levi had spent four months teaching at Georgetown where he became convinced that as many as 1,000 American students could be persuaded to trade in the East Coast for East Fife, adding not only to the University’s lustre, but also its cash vaults too.

12 months later, armed with a hastily thrown together collection of slides and a rough-hewn prospectus, with his wife Honor and Celia in tow, Anthony was back at Georgetown to realise his long-held ambition.

The trip had not been endorsed by the University, but that had not stopped Anthony. He was, by the consensus of those who knew him, “a larger than life sort of character,” unbridled and undaunted by the occupants of College Gate. He had joined the University in 1971 and quickly became celebrated as much for his towering intellect as his “legendarily bibulous” parties after chapel on Sunday.

“The word ‘no’ didn’t really apply to him. The notion that he was from a seaside university on the north east coast of Fife didn’t cross his mind. He thought St Andrews was highly prestigious and had an enormous amount to offer American students and that was that,” Celia recalled.[pullquote]Presentation slides went missing, prospectuses were sent to the wrong airport, on the wrong day and at wince-making cost.[/pullquote]

That October evening, in St Andrews’ honour, Georgetown played host to a score of school heads from surrounding states and correspondents from newspapers such as The New York Times filled the room. The British ambassador to the States, Sir Nicholas Henderson, crowned proceedings with a toast to St Andrews while “Celia brought her red gown and The Washington Post remarked how impressively she spoke,” Anthony later wrote.

Her presence that October evening in 1982 was more by chance than design. She had just completed four glittering years at St Andrews, two of which were spent as president of the Union Debating Society, and was at a loose end. On a whim, and with the help of a Green Card thanks to her father who was a chocolatier in San Francisco, she left her home town of Birmingham for America. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was pursuing the American dream but the US was extraordinarily exciting. There was a sense of possibility and opportunity,” she said.

When Anthony discovered she was moving to the States, he got in touch, asked her to stop off in Washington and told her to bring her red gown. “And I sort of never left,” Celia laughed, her English accent tinctured with a discernible twang common to all naturalised Americans. An internship on Capitol Hill swiftly led to full time employment in communications in Senator Tom Lantos’ office.

“I think it was the stirring of the communications professional in me that made me stop off in DC and help,” Celia said. “When I first sat down with Anthony, well let’s just say that the sales pitch wasn’t exactly there.” The operation was bedevilled by gaffes and amateurism. Presentation slides went missing, prospectuses were sent to the wrong airport, on the wrong day and at wince-making cost.

The prospectus itself was risible, the copy platitudinous and drowned in exactly the kind of mawkishness and parochialism which Anthony was trying to avoid. The student newspaper Aien made mincemeat of it: “Some imagination appears to have gone into the booklet,” the editorial remarked. “The description of our seaside town is beautifully poetic as the following excerpt shows: ‘They wrap themselves closely in warm red gowns against the keen north or east wind for although St Andrews sees sun for much of the time the temperature seldom rises to any great height. The air is clear, horizons distant and local residents live to great ages’”.

Two months later, in a remarkable two page cri de coeur in Aien, Anthony revealed he had shredded thousands of copies of the drivel. “We need to improve our publicity which is frankly dreadful,” he stated baldly. Hugh Crooke, then cultural attaché at the British Embassy in Washington, described British university recruitment as “delicate, confused, complicated and often mistaken.” Anthony called for the establishment of a promotional office in DC and full backing from the University.

But the University’s support was unforthcoming and invectives in the student press did little to win Anthony friends at the top. An Aien editorial from the time lamented the conspicuous absence of principal Steven Watson that evening in October 1982: “Recruitment dinner lacking substance,” its headline scorned. “An invitation was sent to Dr Watson but he declined, to the amazement of the Ambassador, and sent no-one in his place.” Frank Quinault, who became assistant principal for external affairs in 1987, gazed back on that evening through a more financial prism. “He spent a vast amount of money on some gold-plated dinner which didn’t necessarily do any good,” he said. “It was a sideshow.”

However, five high school students from Georgetown were persuaded to come to St Andrews and the University committed £65,000 as a result of their success. The trip may have been unsanctioned by the powers-that-be and its marketing tactics unrefined, but Anthony Levi, his wife Honor and Celia Boddington had taken the first unsteady steps on the path to international recruitment.


As the Anthony Levi “sideshow” was playing out in the well-thumbed pages of Aien and the dining halls of Georgetown, a small group of University executives had their own plans and were quietly manoeuvring to radically transform the University’s student demographic, expand the institution and cash in on a potential international gold mine that had just been opened up by Margaret Thatcher.

When Thatcher came to power in 1979, she set about shaking up higher education in an effort to reduce public expenditure, introducing fees for international students and setting limits on the number of home-grown students institutions could recruit. “This posed a dilemma for the University,” Frank Quinault recalled. “St Andrews was pretty small back then and the principal at the time, Steven Watson, had speculated that the University might rise to something over 4,000 students. The problem was that the number was capped by the government even though the University had the resources.” The solution lay in actively recruiting international students.[pullquote]Armed with videos, prospectuses and other paraphernalia, Frank and his team of academics blazed a trail across the Eastern Seaboard[/pullquote]

A development office was quickly established: a pale substitute of the one that now sits next to the library, it was manned by Colonel John Smith and his two dogs. Frank, who had taken an interest, was told to explore Conquering the world the possibility of staging recruitment drives in high schools and colleges in the States. Eventually three teams of academics were sent to the New England and Mid-Atlantic States to test the water.

“After the positive experience we had on our first trips, it very quickly became obvious that someone needed to take this thing forward,” Frank remembered. “I was still a full-time teacher in Psychology at the time but was asked, as a spare-time activity, to look into the mechanics.” Frank established the non-graduating scheme, the American Enrolment Programme. Students came for a year and if they performed well, could extend their stay for another three.

Armed with videos, prospectuses and other paraphernalia, Frank and his team of academics blazed a trail across the Eastern Seaboard, along a path now familiar to the admissions team but which was then a foreign land to the forerunners of the ’80s. “I have this clear memory from quite early on. I was at JFK airport with two enormous boxes: one full of mugs, one full of prospectuses. I had to push the boxes along with my feet in the airport because I had my own luggage.”

Frank had never been to the States before and admitted that he often got lost in New York’s labyrinthine streets. St Andrews may have still been finding its feet but Frank was unequivocal that the University was pioneering. “We were the first and we were the best,” he said. “People in the States were very surprised to see us. America had a long history of sending students overseas and it was strange for them seeing it the other way round.”

One “indispensable” character who preached the St Andrews word in the States was Bill Thompson. A self-employed architect in Maine, when recession bit in America in the early ’80s, Bill mothballed his business and came to St Andrews on sabbatical in the Psychology department. “I was talking to him about what we were doing and with typical American initiative, he went straight off to see the principal and said: ‘Look I can help you with this,’” Frank remembered. Bill’s peripatetic work took him all over the States and he would drop into high schools with a few prospectuses wherever he was. The University paid him £20,000 – £75,00 in today’s money – and 7.5 per cent commission of the fees paid by each student he persuaded to come, an “expensive way of going about things,” Anthony Levi concluded in Aien.

“Bill did attract criticism from some of the staff because he could be a bit flamboyant,” Frank remembered. He became famous for his appearance at American high schools decked in red gown, kilt and tam o’shanter. “It was obviously completely over the top but it went down quite well,” Frank said. “If you consider how much money the University has made now over the years from American recruitment, that wouldn’t have happened without him. No-one will convince me Bill was anything other than indispensable.”

As the curtain fell on 1985, students seemed more concerned with where to purchase their corsages for May Ball than the changing face of St Andrews. The recruitment drive was starting to attract attention however. An Aien editorial warned: “Cosmopolitan university, college for rich privately educated Americans, Liberal arts institution – there are so many possibilities for St Andrews in the not too distant future. What is certain is that we will have no say.”


“Everything shifted gear when Struther took over,” recalled Stephen Magee, then vice principal for external relations. Struther Arnott had taught at Purdue University in Indiana for 15 years. When he took over as principal in 1986, he set about modernising the University and erasing the image of St Andrews as a backwater where academics stayed for years gathering dust. A well-known joke at the time was that St Andrews’ curriculum, heavily biased towards the humanities, had remained untouched since its foundation in 1411.

Arnott also sought to drag the University into an era where its funding came from commercial activities. For Arnott, the solution lay in internationalising the institution. “The first thing Struther said to me was: ‘We have to internationalise, we have to grow. And we can’t do this just by staying the size that we are so get out there and grow it,’” Stephen remembered. He started professionalising the University’s previously bungled efforts while Frank, who had carefully crafted the American Enrolment Programme, was promoted to assistant principal for external affairs.[pullquote]Students were invited to seminars and workshops on finance, travel and Scottish customs, followed by whisky, haggis and oatcake tasting.[/pullquote]

“Before Struther took over it was amateur. But they showed that there was something to be done and I was given the job of evolving it, professionalising it and turning it into something the University would want to have,” Stephen said. He was told to grow the international body from 3.5 per cent to over 30 per cent. “We didn’t leave it to random academic visits. I decided that this would be systematised and made the message and everything else consistent,” Stephen said. “Everyone else was doing it, shall we say, less consistently and a lot more randomly.”

The evidence of his labour lies scattered across the pages of student media from the time. Aien began to devote an increasing number of column inches to the recruitment drive and the growing presence of international students. In 1990, the overseas orientation weekend was forced to relocate from McIntosh Hall to Andrew Melville because they needed more space. Students were invited to seminars and workshops on finance, travel and Scottish customs, followed by whisky, haggis and oatcake tasting.

In the same year, a two-page feature in Aien ruminated on the fabled Americans’ true nature. It began: “They buy up the Woollen Mill, take over the golf course and have the nerve to ask where they can find a McDonald’s. Loud, brash, and confident, Americans constantly remind us where they come from by flashing loaded bill-folds and uttering American accents. From their baseball caps down to their boat shoes, they bring America with them to Britain – confirming our worst suspicions from the cinema, television and tabloids.”

Readers were informed that students from the States probably own more pairs of blue jeans and Bruce Springsteen tapes than the average Brit. “They even look similar,” it remarked before, more earnestly, beseeching the reader still suspicious of the American and his baseball cap: “We need to meet the individual beneath the polo neck and jeans. We can learn a lot about ourselves by getting to know Americans.”

By the late ’90s, no such plea was necessary. In his 1998 annual report, Struther Arnott declared that St Andrews had shrugged off its “local university” image and was a fully- fledged “globally influential institution”. He said: “To succeed in our aim of continuing to be Scotland’s first and foremost university, we must ensure that the student population is consistently invigorated both by distinguished scholars recruited from far and wide, and by interaction with undergraduates and postgraduates from many countries.” At the time the University boasted 1,000 students from 77 countries with alumni hailing from St Helena to Western Samoa. Most importantly, it was still expanding.


“I’m sorry if I sound jetlagged,” Beth Shotton says. “I’ve spent the last few weeks in New York, Boston and Washington DC and my body doesn’t really know what time it is.” The director of international admissions is now in London for a 24 hour stopover before flying to Singapore and then on to Hong Kong. “We’re well known for burning shoe leather,” Ivar Moller, director of North American admissions, chuckles the next day, speaking via Skype from Toronto ahead of a trip to Vancouver, California and finally Australia.

In 2015, prospective and incoming students can meet a St Andrews representative in 31 American States and 40 countries internationally. Had you been at the Azeri Student Centre in Azerbaijan on 10 April, for example, Jonathan Harvey would have been there to greet you, prospectus in hand. Or, should ever you find yourself in Kuwait with a nagging question, both Deborah Brazendale and Gill Gardner are available to supply the answer.

“St Andrews has been leading internationally for the last 25 years,” reckons John Reilly, a college counsellor at the American School of London who used to work at a high school in the States. “Those recruitment efforts have been consistent, and as a result, high school counsellors in the US know St Andrews. Consistent recruitment effort breeds familiarity.”

“We’re not talking about paying lip service a couple of times a year,” Beth notes. “We’re talking about letters, keeping in touch, really managing relationships and building up trust.”

In September 2014, Beth visited a college fayre at an Illinois high school. On a long list of universities that included Georgetown, Emory and Indiana, St Andrews stood out as the only British university with a representative. In fact, it was the only non-American university there. “Every man and his dog is trying to recruit international students and get up to St Andrews’ standard but at the moment we have the market covered,” says Ivar Moller.

The team of 10 that cover international admissions go abroad five or 10 times a year, paying visits to three or four schools a day. “We publish all our trips so everywhere we go, even in within the UK, students and parents can opt in to make an appointment.” Gone are the days getting lost in New York or donning tam o’ shanters and red gowns. “We’re not going out with bagpipes and looking like William Wallace,” Beth says. “Are we pushing boxes of mugs across the floor of JFK like Frank Quinault did? Sometimes. What’s important though is that we go into every school and present the University in the best light. For me it comes down to the quality of information we provide.”


In 1982, around 3 per cent of the student body was international and a fraction were from the United States. Today the number sits closer to 30 per cent, around half originating from North America. 30 years ago, the news that 434 students were from south of the border prompted the Aien headline “English overrun St Andrews.” Today, some 1,500 undergraduates represent more than 120 different nationalities. In 1982, a French café on Market Street was as cosmopolitan as it got. Tesco now devotes a whole aisle to American and Asian products.

Beth says she and her colleagues owe a debt of gratitude to the pioneers of 30 years ago. “All of those who were recruiting back in the early ’80s, they were really just planting the seeds that are starting to bear fruit,” she says. But as much as the pioneers of the ’80s and their successors enjoy reflecting on the past, all of them want to talk about the future. At a University Court meeting in January, the deputy principal and master announced that St Andrews was planning to increase its overseas student numbers to meet growing costs, adding to the feverish debate over whether St Andrews has become too internationalised and Americanised. “In 20 or 30 years you don’t want to be overrun with one nationality,” Ivar says.

Beth does not think they have gone too far but the international, particularly American, presence is now all too apparent. “There are more kids from England, for example, but we Americans just happen to be the loudest,” she says.

Frank Quinault, who retired in 2007, still lives in St Andrews and is able to witness the fruits of his labour whenever he steps out of his Hope Street house. “When we started all of this 30 years ago I never imagined it would expand to the extent that it has done,” he says. “Occasionally, walking down Hope Street, you wonder, have we lost something? Should it be more Scottish? The credit or blame lies with a long line of people.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

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