The word “Oxbridge” is still synonymous with the higher echelons of public life in Britain.
Barely a day goes by when the term isn’t mentioned in the news, and, rightly or wrongly, they are still viewed by many as the most prestigious universities in the UK.
So how can it be that St Andrews just beat the latter to second place in The Guardian’s university rankings for 2020?
Busting elitist myths
Founded in the 15th century, St Andrews is the third most ancient university in the English-speaking world, and Scotland’s very first university.
Coupled with the imposing historic buildings on campus, the university’s age has long lent it a reputation as a prestigious institution.
This prestigiousness, however, has also engendered a feeling among many university hopefuls that, like Oxbridge, St Andrews is stuffy and elitist.
The fact that it was also where Prince William studied - and met his future wife - has not helped this image.
However, the university’s access efforts have been bold and in some cases much more ambitious than programmes at Oxford and Cambridge.
According to recent figures, almost 50 per cent of Scottish undergraduates at St Andrews were eligible for a relaxation on entry requirements.
The university also offers “gateway programmes” into academically challenging courses for disadvantaged students.
How the rankings are calculated
St Andrews’ efforts to widen access are partially what pushed up its ranking in The Guardian’s league table: adding value to the academic performance of students is one of several criteria used to calculate rankings.
Other criteria include quality of teaching, overall student satisfaction and student-to-staff ratio.
How St Andrews edged Oxford out
Using these criteria, The Guardian calculates an overall score out of 100. St Andrews beat Oxford by 0.3%, scoring 97.9% against Oxford’s 97.6%. Cambridge, at the top of the table, received 100%.
The levels of student satisfaction at St Andrews are extremely high and gave the university an edge over Oxford in this year’s rankings.
St Andrews has also seen an improvement in the proportion of students who find graduate-level work or enter further study after graduating. Oxford ranks 24th on graduate outcomes.
Oxford retained its reputation for strong outcomes in traditional subjects like maths and medicine, however. St Andrews’ strongest results were seen in the sciences as well as economics and philosophy.
Another Scottish university, the University of Edinburgh, also saw excellent results in the rankings this year, rising from 27th place to sixth place thanks to its investment in teaching quality.