Is St Andrews really all it’s cracked up to be?

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View of St Andrews

I am aware that the entire Student Association has probably just sat bolt upright in their chairs. Relax. I’m not about to start slandering our historic University to the hilt. I realise that the title of this piece may have led you to believe that you’re about to experience a mutinous assault or some sort of sacrilegious betrayal, but you can sheath your swords and put down your pistols for now, trust me. Now that I have your attention, however, there are a couple of things I’d like to say.

As I’m sure you’ve no doubt already heard (and possibly had it rammed down your throat, for that matter), the University of St Andrews has just been ranked number one in the whole of the United Kingdom for its standard of teaching. All jokes aside, this is a phenomenal achievement and one which we can all be extremely proud of. It goes without saying that staff and students alike work tirelessly to maintain the exceptional levels of academia in this fine establishment, and undoubtedly we are all thrilled with the result. What’s even more exciting is that we’re now officially TOP in the country for something. At long last, we can say that yes indeed, we are ‘the one ahead of Oxford and Cambridge’. Muahahaha.

St Andrews is known all over the world for being a first class institution of education, which is largely responsible for the fact that entry into the university is so immensely over subscribed (although it fluctuates depending on subject, some figures show that the ratio of applicants per place stands at well over 10:1). We’ve all done splendidly well to get here, no doubt. But it appears to me that this new release of information might actually do more harm than good, and obscure the reality of what this university town is actually like.

So forgive me if I refrain from tattooing “St. Andrews ‘till I die” across my chest just yet.

Even though we have been graced with this new ranking, it doesn’t mean that somehow we’re all going to be awarded with OBEs and greeted with courtesies whenever we venture anywhere more exotic than east Fife. The truth is that, as students here, we are exactly the same as every other university-attendee up and down the country. All students, regardless of which uni they attend, loathe having to drag themselves out of bed to go to their Monday morning tutorial, and similarly, we all endlessly whinge about how poor we are (though this is perhaps less of a problem in St Andrews than it it elsewhere). Whilst it’s nice to be proud of where we are and to be made to feel even more like the prodigal son when we return home for the Christmas break, being part of the university with the highest standards of teaching in the UK doesn’t actually provide any immediate benefits to our lives. Furthermore, and I really hate to be that guy, how far can we actually trust these new statistics as a reflection of the St Andrews’ way of life?

[pullquote]It doesn’t matter whether a survey thinks you’d be more ‘satisfied’ in Brighton or the bloody Bahamas[/pullquote]

In truth, it’s not just the teaching statistics that are not to be trusted; a large part of a prospective student’s opinion of St Andrews is how it fares in the ‘student satisfaction’ section of the university league tables. As my esteemed colleague, Amy Elliott, discussed brilliantly in a captivating article published in an edition of The Saint last year, the notion of student satisfaction is completely subjective to the individual. Although St Andrews consistently ranks highly in such tables, there is no way for surveys to be objective or indeed to provide any actual information with regards to the reality of living and studying here. In my opinion, these surveys are about as dodgy as a St Andrews Conservative Society election. (Too soon?)

Ultimately, when you are knee-deep in coursework with two deadlines looming and a presentation due in, it doesn’t matter whether a survey thinks you’d be more ‘satisfied’ in Brighton or the bloody Bahamas, you’ve still got to fuel up with caffeine and get to the bottom of your never-ending pile of work.

Don’t get me wrong, at the end of the day I don’t think I’d rather be studying anywhere else in the world. However, if you think this new feather in our cap means that I’m suddenly about to skip merrily to and from my lectures, then you’re sadly mistaken. What’s more – and I’m sure I speak for a great many of my fellow students in saying this – there are a few things about this place that annoy the crap out of me.

Firstly, there is the fact that much of what St Andrews is made out to be is just plain irritating. For example, there’s the pier walk, which I still can’t quite work out the appeal of. There are also more practical points that I take issue with. ‘Claustrophobic’ is often a word associated with St Andrews. There is, after all, a reason why the town is called ‘the Bubble’. However, having three main streets, only one or two actual clubs and everything being walking distance certainly has its benefits, there’s no denying. I mean, I sort of snigger when I think of the muggles at other universities who have to get buses everywhere.

Pier walk
The pier walk isn’t an attractive Sunday morning activity for Henry Ford.

Now I’m no city boy by any stretch of the imagination. I come from a rural village in North East England and the idea of living permanently in a busy city like London or Edinburgh is not one that particularly appeals to me. However, even for someone like me, finding somewhere to escape to in St Andrews can often be tricky.

This is made worse by the fact that you are constantly bumping into people you know. I mean, it’s actually quite comical how quickly after stepping out of your door you’ll spot a familiar face. There’s nothing wrong with familiarity, and it’s probably a great way of making this place your ‘home from home’, but I dare you to embark a simple stroll down Market Street on a Saturday afternoon without seeing someone you recognise. Call me antisocial, but on the morning after a night of just a few too many Jaeger bombs, when I’m hauling myself into Tesco and purchase supplies in an attempt to feel human again, the last thing I want is to have to ask how someone’s weekend is going. Give me a few hours of sleep and a gallon of water and I’ll be fine, but I doubt anybody would garner much satisfaction from talking to me before then. Without question, St Andrews is a beautiful Scottish town, but its secluded nature can be both a blessing and a curse.

Not to mention the weather. I’d happily end my days on a warm, sunny evening down on East Sands where, aimlessly gazing out onto the vast blue horizon that lies before me, I could slowly fade into the surrounding serenity. Sadly, for eight months of the year, it’s usually either blowing gales at a level hitherto unknown to science, or lashing down with rain so violently that Noah would consider pitching up his ark just to be on the safe side. As for the four months when we do begin to see something vaguely bright in the sky, we’ve already gone home for the summer.

Another major factor in the hype surrounding St Andrews is the association it has with the royal family. Admittedly this is a hot topic at the moment, and I am by no means stating that I am anti-monarchy. In fact, I believe it does actually provide some serious benefits. As a St. Andrews student, however, I often lose sight of this. It’s such a bore having to endlessly confirm to people that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge did actually meet here. Moreover, I am pretty certain that if I return home for the Christmas break and have to endure just one more person asking me “so, have you met your Kate yet?”, then I am at risk of bludgeoning them to death with a textbook.

Most of the reputation that St Andrews has is nothing more than a toxic cesspit of presumptions and misguided conceptions. Though annoying a lot of the time, St Andrews is nothing like anything you could hear from your mum about her cousin’s friend Vivian who visited here once in the 1970s.

[pullquote]No other place does Pablos quite the same way we do, and no other place in the country has a greater proportion of pubs per square mile.[/pullquote]

The reason being is that it’s completely different from the presumptions, but a thousand times better. I’ll always say to people that I love St Andrews and if I’m honest, part of me always will. Even I’m just saying it to see the insufferable display of pride on my parents’ faces when they tell people where I study.

In all seriousness though, being ranked so highly as a university can only teach you so much, and what St Andrews is really like can only be learned by being here and experiencing it first-hand. For instance, I doubt that you’ll come across a place with a finer mix of both excellent and wonderful people. I also doubt that anywhere else you’ll get to witness, to quite the same degree, a spontaneous ‘shower’ of our own unique St Andrean mix of rain and sleet. No other place does Pablos quite the same way we do, and no other place in the country has a greater proportion of pubs per square mile. Put simply, there’s not really anywhere quite like here.

Let’s not forget, either, that we all have our individual things that we love about this town. At the top of my list would be the world famous nachos at the Whey Pat, closely followed by the otherworldliness of a Dervish kebab. I also love the things we do here just because we can, and without caring what anyone may think. May Dip, an early morning plunge in the North Sea, would seem like a laughable idea to outsiders, but to a St Andrews student the experience is something we actually look forward to all year.

By far, though, it’s the sense of togetherness at this university that is second to none. It doesn’t matter if you’re falling asleep writing an essay in the library, or standing at the bar in the Vic, our community is unrivalled. In truth, St Andrews has its faults, there’s no denying, but no amount of money or persuasion could ever entice me to go anywhere else.

So no, I haven’t met a member of the royal family. No, I’m not a championship golfer. No, I definitely don’t spend my evenings in a tweed jacket swilling brandy in front of a warm fire. Even though we can relish our reign atop the university teaching standards table, St Andrews really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. However, this small seaside town is now our home, and I can live with that.

1 COMMENT

  1. Nice paper! I think that student’s life and the general atmosphere in the village have their role in pushing St. Uni to the top of UK Universities ranking for teaching. And, as I know, the Schools are deeply taking care of their students. As little tiny birds in their nest. But at the end, will they be ready to fly away and survive on their own?
    Just my point view, a kind of “outside look”, as I am not a student anymore :-p

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