“Positively steeped in first class honours” – The Herald – 20 March 2001:
To the new Principal of St Andrews University, running the institution feels a bit like driving a car down a narrow street lined by historic houses, with local people strolling, doing their shopping, and passing the time of day together. But the car is a Formula One racing car and it is being driven at 200 mph.
St Andrews is full of paradoxes. A delightful, historic East Fife seaside town of 18,000 people, the feel is market day, measured rural pottering with time for courtesies. The town is also home to Scotland’s top university, the only Scottish university in the Sunday Times ‘UK Universities Top Ten’. St Andrews University is also Scotland’s oldest. Founded in 1410, it has grainy traditions of red undergraduate gowns, debating in oak-panelled chambers, and Chapel processions on Sundays behind Bishop Kennedy’s mace. The university has its dreamy spires and quadrangles but on the other hand St Andrews University physicists lead the multi-million pound international project which is effectively designing the next phase of the internet.
An announcement is about to be made that a major overseas company has chosen the university as the home of its first research laboratory outside its own country. This choice is based on their wish to work alongside St Andrews’ world-renowned inorganic chemists.
The university has its detractors. Some criticism verges on the offensive. Do those who scorn it (mistakenly) as full of ‘the English’ appreciate how hurtful this extreme form of Scottish parochialism can appear to a community that has been welcoming international visitors for centuries? The students come from 75 countries and the staff from over 40. There are certainly English-born students here (although many of these are, in fact, the sons and daughters of expatriate Scots) but the university is highly international. In a small town like St Andrews, this internationalism is evident in a way which just does not apply for higher education in big metropolitan cities like Glasgow or Edinburgh or, come to that, Manchester or Birmingham.
While it is also true that St Andrews has a lower population than many universities, of students from state schools, the university is committed to social diversity. The university is committed to social, and this includes national, diversity not simply to conform with government policy. Its belief that social diversity encourages intellectual stimulus and lively scholarly exchange is shown in the cosmopolitan nature of its population. St Andrews was one of the first in Scotland to respond positively to the Scottish Executive’s call for greater ‘social inclusion’ through a new part-time degree designed for people whose lives do not allow a traditional university daytime routine of lectures and seminars. A summer school also prepares new undergraduates who have potential above and beyond their formal qualifications, who may be unfamiliar with higher education study skills of lecture notes, essays and presentations. The admissions staff tour local authority schools, describing what might be found at St Andrews, and encouraging the best of those thinking about university to include St Andrews as one of their choices. St Andrews is committed to excellence and will not compromise on its effort to attract the best of those people, wherever they are to be found, who will benefit from a St Andrews education. School leaving certificate results are a highly effective indicator of who will do well, but not the only indicator. The challenge is also to identify those who would benefit from the university but who for reasons of social disadvantage or some other inequality, have a less than normally acceptable educational record. The next task, possibly more difficult because of St Andrews’ (unwarranted, see above) reputation as an English playground as well as educational hothouse, is to persuade them that St Andrews is a worthwhile destination. Hard work is very evident in St Andrews, a higher proportion of whose students actually complete their degree courses than at any other university in Britain.
The tasks ahead are many. The financial position needs a brighter outlook. In a future in which government funding for universities is uncertain, new sources of revenue have to be found, and existing ones improved. It is in such circumstances that St Andrews like many others is learning to use a new language. It offers products (degrees) to a market (potential applicants in schools and colleges around the world) under the umbrella of a venerable brand (the name St Andrews). The teaching process (still mostly face to face, with traditional lectures and seminars, essays and tutorials) is worth examining for opportunities to improve efficiency and creativity through more use of electronic technology. Universities will never, it is fervently to be hoped, be businesses in the sense of pursuing profit for distribution as dividend to shareholders. But they are steadily becoming more business- like, with an increasingly sharp sense of their core mission, and pursuing value for money, the idea of investment in talent but, above all else, in recognising the need for quality assurance and performance measurement.