Getting into The Bubble – is it really as exclusive as it’s made out to be?

Viewpoint Editor Max Waller sets out to challenge the notion that enjoying your time at St Andrews is the privilege of the "middle-class strata of students."

Photo: Kylie Andrews

I am writing in response to Rhodri Lavan’s article, in which he argues that St Andrews University is exclusive because “the social environment of St Andrews can really only be appreciated […] if you’re part of the middle-class strata of students.” A social environment which, he argues, necessitates certain financial prerequisites.

While I disagree with the claim that the social environment can only be appreciated by a certain socio-economic strata of students, it is true that being a student at St Andrews can prove to be more expensive than going to university elsewhere, mainly due to high rents.  However, in terms of everyday living expenses once rent is taken out of the equation, and that includes socialising, I would argue that St Andrews is affordable and not exclusive.

Firstly, the social scene in St Andrews is not financially exclusive.  Tickets for balls can be purchased for under fifty pounds, with the opening Ball standard ticket costing £36, and tickets for various hall balls being available for under fifteen pounds.  By comparison, tickets for comparable events at Oxford and Cambridge cost upwards of £75 for standard tickets and anything up to £300 for VIP.

Drinks at the union are also heavily subsidised, and if you’re drinking a standard beer, then going to various pubs in town is not financially exclusive either, although it is sadly no longer possible to get a pint for 10d – the price of beer when my grandfather was at university!

Clubs and societies tend to have very low membership fees, of at most £5 for societies in my experience, and a bit more for sports clubs, with golf being £65 last year. Considering that golf club membership lets you play on some of the best courses in the world, something people pay thousands for, it is quite a good deal, and the society fees are hardly extortionate.

Society membership is not expensive, ball tickets are relatively cheap, and given that nights out tend to revolve around the subsidised union, all things considered, the social scene at St Andrews is not financially exclusive. As it is not financially exclusive I fail to see how the St Andrews social scene can only be appreciated “if you’re part of the middle class strata of students.” At the very least it is designed to be as accessible as possible. While some people may feel that they do not fit in, this is evidently not a major problem because we have one of the country’s highest rates of student satisfaction and a very low dropout rate.

That being said, however, coming to St Andrews is expensive due to rent. This is because there is a limited supply of apartments and high student demand.  The way to lower the rent is not to implement rent controls – that would just make private land lords sell up.  Either the demand must decrease, due to the university admitting fewer students, or the supply of apartments must increase by getting rid of the HMO ban and having the university build more accommodation, which it is doing.

Prices in halls range from £3915 for a standard self-catered room in Albany Park to £8170 for an ensuite single room with 15 catered meals a week in Agnes Blackadder Hall.  There is a range of prices and options available between theses extremes, but by comparison to other universities this is expensive.  Private accommodation is not much better, ranging from about £4000 to £9000, tending to be more expensive the closer you get to the quad, but prices are considerably cheaper in Dundee if you choose to commute.

There are bursaries available to help with the cost of accommodation, and you are able to choose to be in Albany Park. In my view the university has done a pretty good job of catering to a range of price points, although of course there can always be more affordable accommodation available.

If you were on the maximum maintenance loan from Student Finance England (i.e. a family with a house hold income below £25000) you would have £8430 for the year, of which roughly half would be spent on accommodation in Albany Park, leaving you with a perfectly respectable £4000 or so to live off.  That would leave you with £70720 worth of debt upon graduation (before interest is taken into account) if you were a new entrant this year. However, you only start paying this back when you’re earning over £21000 at a rate of 9 per cent of your income above this threshold.  After thirty years, any remaining debt is written off.

This is more expensive than going to university in England where the courses are only three years long but you do get what you pay for – you’re getting an extra year of tuition.  Yet due to the way the debt is structured you would have to be earning a lot to pay it all off, and if you are not, then you needn’t worry about it because after thirty years it is off the balance sheet.

So to conclude, St Andrews, while more expensive than your average university, is not financially exclusive so that the “social environment can really only be appreciated […] if you’re part of the middle-class strata of students.” This is because before factoring in available bursaries, scholarships and various other forms of fee assistance, a student with the full maintenance loan, meaning they come from a family with a household income of £25,000 or less, would be able to afford to come to St Andrews. They would have enough money to be involved socially, to pay rent, be a member of a few societies and go to a few balls.


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