I, like many a St Andrews student, have taken immense pride in finally being able to provide some evidence to back the claim that “I wouldn’t have done as well at Oxbridge anyway” recently. Indeed, the recent Guardian University Guide placing St Andrews above Oxford has rightfully taken the headlines; but I feel said headlines are detracting from some of the more important takeaways from this year’s rankings.
First of all, one of the more overlooked statistics is our student satisfaction rate. St Andrews ranks comfortably at the top for student satisfaction with university life, teaching, course structure and so on. Students generally genuinely enjoy being here. Oxbridge, by comparison, appears to struggle with student satisfaction. An unusual term structure and an incredibly relentless work programme appears to be fuelling somewhat of a crisis for a lot of Oxford students. Don’t just take my word for it; take the word of Oxford’s independent student newspaper, Cherwell. Moreover, the statistics aren’t favourable for them either. Oxbridge have boycotted the National Student Survey for the past two years, but for the latest data we do have, St Andrews ranked 16 places higher than Oxbridge, and haven’t dipped below fifth place in the past three years. Maybe we just have a tremendous amount of buyer’s remorse, who knows.
As much as this might seem like me gloating about “how good we have it” here in our little seaside hamlet, I don’t mean it to come across that way. A fair few of the friends I have at Oxford and Cambridge seem run down and uninspired by subjects they once adored, and it’s actually somewhat upsetting to see. As such, I take no pleasure in highlighting the difference in student satisfaction. I seek to display not only what we should be grateful for, but also lessons that can be learned from all the league tables, not just the Guardian’s – you can provide academic teaching excellence, research quality, career prospects and all the rest of it without working your students absolutely to the bone. A St Andrews degree is by no means a walk in the park (trust me, I know people who do science) but our term structure, reading weeks and coursework programmes appear to greatly benefit student wellbeing without detracting from our academic prowess.
Of course, St Andreans will also get to the point where they feel uninspired by their degrees; despondent at the dreaded lab report or miserable at the harrowing list of essay questions they must choose from, the St Andrews student no doubt has also pondered on the question, “Why do I bother?” Not to mention the fact that, according to the most recent data, it isn’t exactly all doom and gloom at Oxbridge, with only 1 in 10 students feeling unhappy with their student experience. However, I’ve encountered the aforementioned doom and gloom a lot less with St Andrews friends than I have Oxbridge friends. Small sample size I know, but an interesting observation nonetheless. Personally, I feel the option to study three different things in one year helps massively. Ask me if I’m enjoying my IR, Philosophy or Classical Studies and I’ll probably reply positively. Suggest giving me triple-helpings of any one of them and my response would probably be to faint in terror.
I feel that this brings me neatly onto my next takeaway (which, oddly enough, were the exact words I said when I got home from work today) which is that in terms of teaching, research, career prospects and so on, St Andrews has done well in various particular subjects but relatively very poorly in others; I think at least partly owing to some subjects being more flexible than others. While the Guardian ranking St Andrews second in the overall league table is what is bound to be plastered across every one of our prospectuses from now until the end of time, I find overall league tables quite useless in practice. What good is it for a prospective Chemistry student to see we’re ranked above Oxford generally in the Guardian, but ranked a whole 10 places beneath them for their course? Such a ranking then becomes irrelevant. For all the fanfare about us beating Oxbridge, we’ve dipped at least six places in Medicine, Social Anthropology and Theology according to Complete University Guide and have made only minor gains elsewhere. Celebrate with caution, St Andrews.
On a different note, one aspect I feel the rankings fail to appreciate is funding and cost. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge have about 78 times and 82 times larger endowments respectively as well as 9 times and 8 times larger respective budgets than St Andrews. This, despite both universities only having twice the number of students of Scotland’s first university. Granted, the research output of Oxbridge outranks that of St Andrews but surely not enough to justify such a grotesque disparity in spending. While, in many of the league tables, Oxbridge remains dominant, it isn’t by a distance large enough to reflect the difference in budgets. Not only is St Andrews excelling in many areas, but it also appears to have somehow done so on the cheap. If there were a league table for “Value for Money”, St Andrews would be up there with the Wilsons Bakery 2 for £1 sausage rolls and the Tesco reduced 17p hot cross buns whilst Oxbridge sits glumly alongside the likes of a full-price Dominos Pizza or the Adamson.
Something that has struck me these past few days as well that I’d like to highlight is the plain smug sourness on show from many Oxbridge rejects at St Andrews. As a proud Cambridge reject, I sadly do not have anything to be gleeful about as, alas, no league table dared allow us to slay that particular dragon. However, I still find myself guilty of indulging in the sour “well, look at me now” attitude that many of my Oxford-applying counterparts have exhibited, despite having nothing to be smug about. While I don’t want to comment on whether this smugness is a bad thing – for fear of having half of my fellow students don pitchforks and torches and burn down my house – what I believe it shows is that Oxbridge remains in the minds of many students in a world, or rather league, of its own. Moreover, what is an interesting takeaway from this year’s rankings is that, when another institution dares encroach onto that world, a frenzy erupts from the aforementioned encroaching uni. The reactions on social media to the rankings would have you believe that Oxford has undertaken a spectacular fall from grace and has quite literally been slain in typical Game of Thrones fashion. It wasn’t until the dust had settled that people finally realised we topped them in a fairly meaningless league table and only by the most insignificant of margins. Oxford hasn’t all of a sudden collapsed and it will likely re-establish the Oxbridge duopoly next year. However, I feel the extraordinary reactions from many a St Andrews student just goes to show that the mentality of Oxbridge being on a totally separate cloud to every other elite university still goes strong, even though in reality and practice this isn’t necessarily the case.
So, although we’ve all enjoyed a good gloat these past few days about the big headline, we really must look at these results as a mixed bag or be at risk glossing over some of our weaknesses. Medics, for a start, deserve a much more reputable medical school for the work they put in (seriously, you people are like machines.) As well as this, the rankings have failed to appreciate the dire state of student living in our town, which no doubt will soon affect student satisfaction rates at least indirectly in the future. However, we do have some things to genuinely be proud of. First of which is that we’re not spending £3bn annually yet still providing education on par if not better than our apparently less-frugal counterparts across the border. Second, and chief of which I feel, is that St Andrews and the St Andrews degree structure remains a worthwhile and fulfilling thing to do generally. The horror stories of lecturers turning up drunk, hungover or not at all that are ubiquitous in the movies and on the TV don’t really happen so much in St Andrews (I hesitate to say not at all, just in case, you know) and the opportunity to branch out and do things one might never have expected to do remains a highlight of the St Andrews experience. Essentially what I’m saying is, take pride in the rankings from this year by all means, but be smug at your own peril.