The University of St Andrews in the UK does not have the size or population to be part of the global top 20, the student population having been deliberately kept almost permanently around 10, 000. But it maintains a global mystique beyond its size. And it is even deepening the mystique.
It has been ranked first in the Guardian University Guide 2024, making it “the second year in succession St Andrews has been ranked first in the UK in the Guardian Guide”. That is the voice of the Vice-Chancellor, Prof Dame Sally Mapstone who also holds that “to be ranked top last year for the first time, was very special. To upset the old order two years in succession may be habit forming”. The University of St Andrews is one of the powerful universities led by a woman. For fear of the gender warriors, we cannot mention it too loudly but the truth is that the womenfolk have seized the headship of the most strategic universities in the world, from Oxford to Harvard and to Texas A & M University, University of Cape Town, Stockholm, Durham, Dublin, Sorbonne, Minnesota, Leiden, Brown, Southern California, Amsterdam, Wisconsin at Madison, Monash, Queensland, McGill, Washington, Manchester, Bristol, Cornell, LSE, Michigan at Ann Arbor, Pennsylvania, Imperial College, Berkely and many, many more. Where a woman Vice-Chancellor is not the incumbent in any of these universities, then a woman has either just left or is incoming because this list is based on a February 2022 compilation.
The University of St Andrews’ deepening of its mystique started in 2022 when it was ranked the top UK university by The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2022. That was “the first time in the 30-year history of league tables that any university other than Oxford or Cambridge has come first”. In 2023, it marched on to the first position in The Guardian’s Best University Guide. In 2024, it retained the position. Additionally, the newly introduced Daily Mail University Guide has declared the University of St Andrews the title of UK University of the Year for Teaching Quality. St Andrews came 6th in that ranking in which Imperial College, generally regarded as the UK version of the MIT in the USA came first, followed by Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, LSE and St Andrews, then by the University of Warwick, University of Strathclyde, King’s College and the University of Bath. These constitute the first ten in the Daily Mail League table just coming on board the ranking exercise. There may be no dramatic loss of status for St Andrews when the Times publishes its 2024 ranking in the week ahead.
Again, the VC speaks: Our academic schools and subjects were also hailed individually by The Guardian. No fewer than nine – Art History, Chemistry, English, History, International Relations, Management, Modern Languages, Neuroscience, and Psychology – were ranked first in the UK. In total, 20 subjects taught at St Andrews were ranked in the top five.”
For any other university in the UK to beat giants in university education field of play such as Oxford, Cambridge, University of Edinburgh, Imperial College, UCL, LSE, King’s, University of Manchester, University of Bristol, University of Warwick and the University of Durham is no mean achievement, whatever the methodology used. Like the lizard that fell from the tree top, the University of St Andrews is entitled to clap for itself loudly even if no one else does. But, in this case, everyone is clapping for it. The Guardian argues for a change from Oxbridge signifier for prestige to Stoxbridge, which would be widening the coinage to accommodate St Andrews. The Guardian is actually suggesting that St Andrews has broken the Oxford – Cambridge hegemony. What is the miracle going on there?
Could it be a demonstration of Scottish excellence? It could be because Scotland is the soil on which this university has grown but the university has students and staff from over one hundred countries. Could it have to do with being a small university? But can size alone make all the difference? Is it because it is a medieval university? Possibly, because all the other medieval universities – Oxford and Cambridge – are doing well. We can go on and on but can hardly find a better explanation of the university’s strides than that it is simply a centre of academic excellence. That covers everything.
Intervention presents a very random pick from The Guardian’s Best University Guide for 2024. It goes like this:
St Andrews, Glasgow, LSE, King’s, Loughborough, Warwick, Aberdeen, Sheffield, Keele, Aston and Aberystwyth
Media and Film Studies
Warwick, St. Andrews, Loughborough, Sunderland and Coventry
UCL, Cambridge, Oxford, King’s, LSE, Glasgow, Durham, Solent, Leeds Trinity and Warwick
Aberdeen, Cambridge, St. Andrews, Swansea, Edinburgh, Keele, Imperial, Oxford, Glasgow and Brighton Sussex Medical School
Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, King’s, Glasgow, Strathclyde, Warwick, Stirling, Aberdeen and Loughborough
St Andrews, Oxford, Cambridge, Bournemouth, Durham, LSE, Suffolk, Warwick, UCL and Teesside
What this list is showing is that for the ‘best’ grip on politics, Oxford is the place to go. For Medicine, it is the University of Aberdeen. For Law, it is UCL. For International Relations or History, it is St Andrews while for media and film studies, it is the University of Warwick. This is the picture from the UK based on how The Guardian sees it. Next week, The Times might see it differently or almost the same. It is unlikely to be vastly different.
As seen by The Guardian, the first twenty universities in the UK today are St. Andrews, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Imperial College, University of Bath, University of Durham, University College London, University of Warwick, University of Loughborough, University of Lancaster, University of Aberdeen, University of Glasgow, University of Edinburgh, University of Arts in London, University of Strathclyde, University of Bristol, University of Exeter, University of York and the University of Southampton.
As far as Intervention can see, it is nearly impossible to have anything called the best university in an all -round sense. The closest to any such thing is Oxford University or the University of St Andrews coming first in eleven and nine subject areas in the current The Guardian ranking exercise, respectively. That is the closest to that idea because a university with that ranking makes itself distinctively referential somehow.
The UK example gives other countries an image with which to compare notes and perhaps its own national and regional assessment, with particular reference to the question of what should count most in assessing and ranking the universities. The methodology for ranking is where the trouble with the ranking industry is right now: should we worry more about research or about teaching? What emphasis should publications and citations get? And so on and so forth?