As a third year student I must confess that something has been bugging me about St Andrews since I first moved here two years ago. It is not the tourists ambling about the streets, nor the lack of nightlife and things to do. It is not the Union replacing Tennents with Carling or the false belief that Dervish is a superior take-away to Empire. It is the sense that not everyone at this university shares in the same experiences. Our self-styled image of living in a “bubble” all sounds very cosy, but how many of us actually exist inside that bubble?
On the one hand, as far as student bodies go, it does seem an apt description. We have the highest student satisfaction ratings in Scotland and the third highest in the UK. This is pretty good considering we are a top 10 UK university, which usually score lower because of the strenuous work rate. Furthermore our long-standing traditions of pier walks, Raisin Weekend, fancy-dress foam fights in our academic families and May Dip outings in the early morning while heavily inebriated stand out as examples of a real sense of community here.
There is however, another side to the story that I think the student satisfaction figures do not show. Namely the obstacles to some students in adapting to St Andrews life, and how there is a clear bias in favour of the wealthiest and most socially privileged of St Andrews students.
My contention is basically this; the social environment of St Andrews can really only be fully appreciated or engaged with if you are part of the middle class strata of students that make up a large portion of the student body. The price of the numerous balls, expensive in-town accommodation and upmarket restaurants with which students here are associated and are encouraged to revel in show that there are certain financial and social prerequisites for fitting in this “bubble.”
The sense of superiority that some hold over students from Dundee University for example is symptomatic of these requirements. Jokes referring to “Scumdee” are frequent – why do we take pleasure in degrading them because they were not as fortunate to attend the university that we did?
Just like us they are trying to better their career prospects by attending university and getting a degree. The regard with which they are held is nothing less than class snobbery. This kind of attitude is indicative of an exclusive and conceited culture of privilege in St Andrews. For someone like me who is among one of the most dependent upon loans and bursaries, I find the lack of students from similar backgrounds a palpable failure of inclusivity.
The acceptance figures for St Andrews students bears out some of what I’ve been saying. The Sutton Trust – an educational charity which seeks to investigate and improve educational disadvantage in the United Kingdom – released a report in 2016 which addressed access to higher education for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. It showed that St Andrews University in particular accepts “a smaller proportion of young people from the most disadvantaged areas” at only 14 per cent, compared to an average of 21.6 per cent for the other Scottish ancient universities. St Andrews was also the only Scottish university “statistically significantly below its benchmark” in access for poorer students.
Is it any wonder that I’m questioning the aptitude of the describing St Andrews as a “bubble”? It is only a bubble in so much as you have the right kind of class distinctions to participate fully in student life. Life in St Andrews can in a large part be synonymous with privilege, money and the higher tiers of social status.
This is an important point because the lack of poorer students may lead many to presume that all who come to St Andrews are wealthy and not in need of the kind of support that is essential for assuring candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds to continue their studies. The opposite is in fact the case, St Andrews having recently been declared the third most expensive for students to live in.
Amongst the parade of St Andrews fashion shows, balls and expensive accommodation, tuition fees are rising yet again to £9,250 – making potential applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds wonder whether St Andrews is really worth extraordinary levels of debt. Disadvantaged Scottish students, while having no tuition fee, loose out as free tuition for all was funded by axing means tested grants and the Conservative government has scrapped maintenance grants, essential for some of the working class students trying to afford the ridiculously high prices for accommodation here.
All of this points to the fact that St Andrews, in both the attitudes of its students and the systematic obstacles to its experiences, excludes poorer students and favours those who come from privileged homes. It seems odd then to view St Andrews as a hub of inclusivity while so many of the most disadvantaged students are let down by the university system and the cost of living in this town.
It is time that we stop pretending that all St Andrews students share a common experience – especially if we want to genuinely live up to the image of an inclusive “bubble” that we seek to portray ourselves as.