Widening Access

The Saint gets an overview of the admissions process at St Andrews as they speak to the Director of UK/EU Admissions: Mike Johnson.

Every student submits an application to admissions before attending the University of St Andrews. But how many of them are familiar with the team behind their St Andrews offer? The Saint sat down with Mike Johnson, Director of UK/ EU Admissions and Access to find out more about the work they do.
One aspect of Mr Johnson’s role is looking after the University places that are funded by the Scottish Government for Scottish and EU students who have free tuition. The other aspect of his title is access, ensuring that St Andrews is accessible to young people across the country regardless of their background.
In addition to this, the department provides contextual admissions, so that applications received by the University are given appropriate consideration. Mr Johnson said, “We look very closely at all the schools, the academic schools, at every school there is an academic admissions officer and they are primarily there to understand the personal statement context and they’re trying to get the best students, as we all are, for their subject. And we are there to give context around education background, access issues or anything like that.”
In 2015, the former prime minister David Cameron proposed a move towards anonymising UCAS by removing candidates’ names from the application. This was an action intended to remove an unconscious bias from the UK and EU application system as a name can often reveal or reflect an ethnic background. The Saint asked Mr Johnson what his opinion was on this move towards greater anonymity for applicants.
“The last thing I look at is the name actually. We do need to look at their school context, we do need to look at their background … but I do understand that there is some evidence around the fact that that subconsciously there is a bias of some kind,” Mr Johnson said.
“But in the very nature of contextual admissions if we don’t have any context, we don’t have any contextual admissions. We want that student because they are the best student in that school. We don’t know they are the best student in that school without contextualising. So that’s where I fall out with anonymisation because of the lack of context,” he continued.
According to entry figures for 2015-16, it was revealed that the University of St Andrews had significantly fewer numbers of state-educated pupils from the UK than any other institution of higher education in Scotland.
Just 56.7 per cent of students attending the University of St Andrews came from a state school. In the academic year of 2015-16, St Andrews was the second most privately educated mainstream university in the UK just shy of Oxford’s 55.7 per cent previously state-educated pupils.
We asked Mr Johnson why this might be and he said, “Primarily what we are doing is not targeting state versus independent. We don’t do that, it’s not part of our contextual admissions.”
“What we do in our contextual admissions is look at the types of schools, high progression schools, so they would be in that sort of school. Low progressions schools, so in other words, schools which progresses less to HE (Higher Education) are interesting to us,” he added.
The Saint asked Mr Johnson if there were any plans to try and increase the number of state-educated pupils at St Andrews to fall more in line with other Scottish universities, such as Edinburgh, in which 69.7 per cent of the UK student body attended state
“I’m not saying it’s something that we are not conscious of, but I don’t think we will crack it by saying that we are not taking them because they are independent, we are taking them because they’re state, it’s sort of a false thing to do,”
Mr Johnson said. “So what I think we should do is carry on the way we are doing it, with lots of projects, raising attainment within schools. Doing all that we can to ensure that people find us attractive from state schools and access backgrounds and then we have the number of students we can pick from the pool,” he added.
Mr Johnson affirmed that the split between state and private was likely reflected in the applications that the university receives. “So in some way what we’ve got to do is increase the number in that pool we can pick from – rather than say we are going to be biased against independent schools,” he added.
As a result of this high percentage of privately educated students and notable alumni including Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, the University of St Andrews has garnered an elitist image within Scotland and the rest of the UK. Therefore, it would seem that Mr Johnson has a particularly difficult task in tackling this.
However, Mr Johnson does not see it this way, instead telling The Saint, “I think that people would like to see us as something we are not. I think I don’t like the word elite, I don’t believe we are elite, I think we are competitive, I think there may be people within the University who think of themselves as elite and there’s others who think of themselves as normal folk, I think the latter is the majority.”
Mr Johnson reflected upon his own experiences as a mature student in the 1990s in order to dispel this belief, “My background is having had no qualifications from school, coming from a mining town in Wales where they closed all the mines. And I came to St Andrews, so I am not elite, so I don’t see this university that way.”
Along with this perception of elitism, there is now also a view that applicants from the US have a substantial presence among the student body. Consequently, many potential applicants from Scotland and the EU worry that they may be losing out on places to high-fee-paying international students.
An overseas medical student entering St Andrews in 2017 can be expected to pay a sum of £28,200 per year, and an Arts, Divinity and Science overseas student will pay £20,570.
Mr Johnson said, “It is a misunderstanding that we prefer to take international students over Scots and EU or UK (rest of the UK), that’s not what we do. We have a set plan that the Government numbers give us, then we can look at international students. So international students will never displace a Scot, never displace a European because it’s a funded number.”
Given that the places for Scottish and EU students are funded by the government, we asked Mr Johnson if he believed that free tuition was helping or hindering students.
He asserted, “There’s very simple evidence that says the rest of the UK pay fees and it hasn’t put kids off from going, Scotland doesn’t have to pay fees and it hasn’t increased the number of kids coming from access backgrounds.”
He also expressed a belief that the impact of free tuition would become apparent in the future – “the longevity of a report should be how many stay in university. How many leave after one year with that debt but no degree. How many access kids come in and take that debt on and are no better off than if they got a job in their local Tesco without that debt.”
As well as handling admissions, from the EU and the UK, Mr Johnson also oversees a number of courses which improve access and outreach for the University. One such course is the STAR programme (Students Through Alternative Routes), which is part of the Scottish Widening Access Programme.
The programme ring-fences places for more mature students, rather than the typical school leavers. Mr Johnson said, “It’s working really well we’ve got around about over the course now around about 80-90 students at St Andrews. People recognise that its more mature students sitting in tutorials or classrooms a little bit more. Which is good for the university, I think we need that diversity.”
St Andrews also ensures that students from the UK, with a family income of less than £34,000 will receive £15,000 to help towards living costs.
Numerous gateway programmes ensure that Scottish students from low-performing schools can access subjects at St Andrews, with lower grades than required for the standard course. Gateway courses to Physics and Astronomy, Medicine and Computer Science are available through the application system.
Given that all these programmes involve science subjects, The Saint asked Mr Johnson if there were any plans to expand the gateway programme to the Arts. “There’s talk. I would say at this level there’s talk. There’s nothing firm. There’s potential for it to be, but it’s obviously got to be talked through with the proctor and the proctor’s office and teaching,” he added.
And what is Mr Johnson’s opinion on the matter of Brexit and a potential second referendum on Scottish independence? Whilst he noted that he would be looking to the Principle’s Office for guidance, he also said, “I think we are rolling with it. In the last five years admissions have rolled with referendums, change of government in Westminster, Brexit, referendums, so I think we will probably be on the same footing of trying to navigate through a very political minefield.”

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