St Andrews students on battling elitism jibes

Students walk along the harbour wall. Picture: Jane Barlow
Students walk along the harbour wall. Picture: Jane Barlow
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ST Andrews has been under fire for not attracting enough students from an impoverished background. One of those critics, 
Scotsman columnist Hugh Reilly, was invited to the Fife university to learn about the work being done there to widen access

ENTERING the St Andrews University Students Association building, I felt like a Christian stepping into the Coliseum holding a bag of carrots, earnestly praying the lions plumped for the vegetarian option. In a recent column, I’d been scathing of the prestigious university’s appalling track record in attracting students from an impoverished background.

St Andrews students during the annual Raisin Monday celebration. Picture: Dan Phillips

St Andrews students during the annual Raisin Monday celebration. Picture: Dan Phillips

It was helpfully pointed out to me that I had overstated the problem by inaccurately claiming that only 13 pupils from schools serving deprived areas had been given places. I am happy to rectify my error: the true figure is 14. Stung by my criticism, Freddie Fforde (the second f is silent unless, like me, one has a stammer), the president of the university’s student body, invited me to go to that part of Fife that will always be England for those who failed to gain entry to Oxbridge. He wanted me to see for myself the excellent work being done to widen access. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Arriving early, I popped in to the students’ union café for a coffee, my presence unnoticed by a group of hardworking undergraduates studiously updating Facebook entries on their laptops. A Billy-nae-mates bloke sat opposite the throng and, not that I was eavesdropping, was busily engaged in phoning radio outlets, beseeching them to give some air play to the St Andrews students’ Christmas single. To warm up his cockles on a cold-calling depressing day, I breezed over and quizzed him about St Andrews’ elitist reputation. In the opinion of Sam Lipworth, 21, a medical student, the university is unfairly portrayed in the media as an education playground for the rich. His manservant nodded in agreement.

“Much more work has to be done further down in schools,” Sam said. “I’ve visited schools in the local area and many of the kids seem to lack focus, unsure of what they want to do in life. Very few aspire to become students of St Andrews whereas teenagers in nearby private schools expect to attend this university.”

In the foyer, I finally got to meet a slightly tardy Freddie. The president is tall, dashingly handsome and frightfully well-spoken, thus we had nothing in common. It crossed my mind to ingratiate myself by commenting that it had been a “spiffing” journey up from Glasgow but, thankfully, I thought better of it. Inside the students’ union, he introduced me to three female students who would enlighten me regarding the efforts of the students’ association to attract learners from the bottom 20 per cent of Scottish society. Also in attendance was Mike Johnson, the university admissions officer. As he was the person taking much of the flak for the university’s failure to recruit the most gifted of our poorest youth, I confess to being more than a tad disappointed when he turned up wearing a suit rather than a natty hairshirt underneath a bespoke sackcloth and ashes gabardine. To be fair, the Welshman’s gregarious demeanour did not suggest that he perceived his task of widening access as something that made the job of the Syrian Tourism Minister seem a cushy billet.

St Andrews students speak to Hugh Reilly. Picture: Ian Rutherford

St Andrews students speak to Hugh Reilly. Picture: Ian Rutherford

With not so much as cup of tea or a beyond-expiry-date custard cream on offer, no-one could accuse Freddie of trying to bribe me into writing a favourable piece. Armed with statistics, he endeavoured to convince me that the university was actually being successful in luring impoverished youngsters to study at the hallowed institution.

“Under a freedom of information request, it was discovered that poor pupils with the appropriate Higher qualifications represented 2.5 per cent of the cohort. The 14 students here represent 2.7 per cent of the student population, therefore St Andrews is doing well,” he said. It was the kind of killer fact that would have pleased Mr Micawber. Freddie’s spin on the numbers made me think that, had he been Pol Pot’s lawyer, the black-pyjama dictator would have received community service, had there been any community left to serve.

Perhaps sensing that I was experiencing some difficulty in celebrating St Andrews’ admittedly relative triumph, Mike offered further evidence that the university did not deserve to be publicly pilloried. “Of the 55 underprivileged pupils with the requisite national examination awards, 34 were offered places here. That only 14 decided to accept is disappointing but it hints that there are a plethora of reasons why kids choose not to come. Many living in the greater Glasgow area decide to study at Strathclyde or Glasgow University because their friends are there or they wish to save on accommodation costs by staying at home,” he stated.

He feels that while the university can always do more, not enough media attention has been given to the work being done to attract disadvantaged students. For example, he highlighted the scholarship fund available to any student whose household income is below £42,000. Through its access programmes, the establishment encourages adults who missed out on a first chance of a university education to study at St Andrews. Each year, a handful of places on the medical course are allocated to students from Perth College. Further, he pointed out that there was great competition for places in every course and posited that, in some other universities, poorer pupils often studied so-called low-tariff courses.

The trio of girls – Pamela Forbes, Linda Gibson and Avalon Borg – stoutly defended the efforts of St Andrews students to widen participation. Pamela and Linda are members of the Ambassadors initiative that seeks to raise awareness of the possibility of a higher education at St Andrews. Ambassadors have close links with many Fife secondary schools and even some primary schools. (I must have had my Doubting Thomas face on because Linda deemed it necessary to show me a Smartphone picture of her in a classroom with smiling children). Avalon, a Canadian, was adamant that entrance grades should not be lowered to allow a greater cross-section of society to learn at St Andrews. A product of a state education in Toronto, she felt that such a move would set kids up for failure.

As the meeting progressed, it became abundantly clear that Freddie is sincere in his determination to rid the university of its unwanted and, perhaps, unwarranted snobbish reputation. In an effort to spread the net of potential students from poor households, he intends to spread the gospel of St Andrews by visiting schools in Glasgow. Given his enthusiasm and genuine desire to open the portals of the university to more than the lucky few, I trust he will be warmly welcomed.

I departed the campus with a different perception of St Andrews. In the face of overwhelming evidence, it is obvious that the answer to improving the number of poor children attending the university is extremely complicated. The lack of ambition and expectation of pupils needs to be addressed and, truth be told, some teachers must put their prejudices aside and encourage those under their tutelage to consider St Andrews University as a higher education destination.

In my view, students and university officials are to be commended for their efforts thus far. Doubtless, some readers will be convinced that Freddie and Mike somehow managed to pull the cashmere over my cynical eyes. But before Mike Russell uses the cash cosh to force better social outcomes, he, like me, should delve deeper into the reasons why the lions’ share of St Andrews students continue to be drawn from patrician families.