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Number One For What?

St Andrews is Number One in the UK - Here's Why

For the first time ever, St Andrews has topped both The Guardian’s and The Times’ ranking for the best British university in the same year.

The achievement, on paper, is astonishing. In a little corner of Fife, in a town barely able to support 10,000 students, where the weather is miserable, the nightlife disappointing, and the academic work painfully voluntary, somehow, we find the best university in the UK.

Many, reasonably, are cynical. In my experience, the most common reactions involve a combination of a shrug, an unfavourable comparison to Oxbridge and some general sense that these figures emphasise the wrong things.

In some ways, fair enough. The cruel academic rigour of Oxbridge, Imperial, and the LSE is not something you find here. We are not subjected to doom-cycles of essay production, where 2500-worders come every four days, and those that have failed to do the reading are cross-examined and humiliated by the authors of the article your course obliged you to read. Similarly, we do not produce the same quantity of serious research as a university like Oxford and Cambridge — whose size, wealth, and prestige dwarfs little St Andrews.

And that’s reflected in other rankings. In international rankings, where it’s the ‘serious’ postgraduate research that really counts, we fare far worse. In fact, St Andrews barely registers. In the Times Higher Education World Rankings, where Oxford was best in both the UK and the world, we come 29th in the UK, and somewhere between 201st and 250th globally. In fact we fall way behind institutions — including Aberdeen, Leicester, and Lancaster — that you’d think we would trounce.

This misses the point. St Andrews has never wanted to be any of these things. We do not place extreme, unrelenting pressure on our students, nor do we prioritise research and academic purity above all else. But it is precisely that which makes us so appealing.

The purpose of being an undergraduate is not the merciless production of ideas, to the extent that it crowds out the basic needs of human happiness in the process. Instead, it’s about getting ready for the real world — a world far more about balancing the competing demands of a happy life, than it is about the unhealthy fetishisation of academic text. What makes St Andrews such a good university is that it recognises that.

St Andrews understands that a student is not an abstract thing that has to be squeezed and moulded until it looks like all the others — but a person. Not just any person, but an especially fragile one that’s just getting to grips with the world. Young people need space, emotional support, and time to think and make mistakes. A good university makes room for that.

Hence, in The Times’ and The Guardian’s recent rankings, it is career prospects, student satisfaction, drop-out rates, and value for money, that power us to the number one spot. In other words, things that relate to how a student experiences university, rather than those that relate to the quality of the work the university produces.

That can only be a good thing. Universities are often treated as a weird mish-mash of two institutions in one. One the one hand, they are centres of innovation and knowledge-production — which produce high quality research and turn out new ideas, cures, inventions, and techniques ready to be appropriated by the outside world.

On the other, they are pedagogical institutions — designed to transform students into graduates, bringing them a level of skill and creativity they could not get elsewhere.

University culture often gets itself confused, letting its instinct for academic purity leak into its teaching style, making work dull, dry, and strenuous in the process.

St Andrews succeeds because it recognises the two are different things. And as a result, it teaches us well. Yes, that includes the teaching of subjects, a number of which (English, History, Art History, Economics, Chemistry, Neuroscience, and IR) are the best taught in the UK.

But it has never been primarily about that. What makes St Andrews so great is the recognition that success is about so much more than forcing books out of the page and into your brain.

In turning students into people, St Andrews leads the pack. For that we can be proud.

Illustration by Ahira Varkey

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1 Comment

Oct 18, 2023

Recognising that growing to be adults is most fragile & a stage requiring support of quirks & identities...bold ,democratic & progressiive.

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