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Well, I have just graduated from St Andrews, (2 days ago – it was fantastic!) and so I decided to rewrite my originally very short and almost churner-style opinion about the university where I have just spent my last four years, and hope to spend a further few years! (My willingness to stay on shows straight away just how great it is here!)
St Andrews was founded in 1411, the first university in Scotland. Scottish academics, many of whom had graduated from Paris, established the university here, and it continued to grow in size, with an explosion of new buildings in the 1960s. This is not a campus based university and buildings are spread out throughout the town, with two highly attractive quadrangles, St Salvator’s, and St Mary’s. In the summer, you often see Japanese tourists getting their cameras out in the hope of catching some St Andrews students strolling through in their striking red undergraduate gowns. Apparently they are such a bright red as this was originally to deter students from entering brothels!
This is generally considered to be excellent in St Andrews, although I recommend reading some of the specific subject reviews if you are considering coming here. I have however always found my tutors to be really helpful, and to have a passion for the subject they are teaching. Lectures too are generally of a high quality.
One of the advantages of studying at a Scottish university is the chance to take more subjects than the one in which you hope to take your final exams. In St Andrews, during the first 2 years, you can take 3 (or more) different subjects each year. In my first year, I learnt Russian in addition to studying both Scottish and Modern history, and in my second year took modules in International Relations and Divinity, as well as concentrating on History which was my degree. This is a good system as it enables you to try other subjects which you might not have considered and this can sometimes encourage people to change their degree - I had a friend who was studying psychology and took a module in art history to see what it was like, and enjoyed it so much she is now doing single honours art history. It is nice to know that you are not locked into the degree you originally applied for.
The downside of this is that if you are completely dedicated to your subject then you may feel frustrated being forced to study something which is outside your interest. My degree was in history and although I did enjoy the other subjects I took, in 2nd year I wished I could have taken 3 different history modules, but this was not allowed.
In 3rd and 4th year however you can choose to specialise in your particular subject, really narrowing down your interest if you want. I chose for example to focus on C16th history but have also taken a couple of modules outside of this in medieval history. This also gives you the chance to both broaden your knowledge and to make new friends – some of my best friends here are from the Medieval history department, several of whom also hope to stay on next year.
Entertainment and people: ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Whilst St Andrews lacks the nightlife associated with a city such as Edinburgh, it has a lot of other things to offer. There is always something to do, whether it is just going for coffee or a drink with friends, or wandering along the beach or through a park. It’s great to be living in a town so close to the sea, and with so much history everywhere you go. There are loads of coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, and bars, something to suit all tastes, and all price ranges!
The Students Union here is OK, maybe not as good as at some other universities but it does have some quite good nights and has the cheapest prices in town. There are no clubs, only one small cinema and no decent shops except touristy ones, which may not be the right environment for some people, but on the other hand it does mean that you have to make your own entertainment a bit more, and there are usually quite a few dinner parties taking place. Because it is such a small town you tend to make friends for life, though some people may find this a bit claustrophobic.
There are plenty of societies to join, from the regular academic ones, to the more unusual, such as PuddingSoc, and the Tunnocks Caramel Wafer soc! I have always been a member of the history society, which organised some interesting lectures, and the highlight of its calendar, which was the history ball. There are always loads of balls taking place in St Andrews, and you don’t have to be a member of the particular society to attend. It’s a great chance to get dressed up, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll love seeing all the guys wearing their suits! Usually at the balls, there is a ceilidh to start off with, where we do typical Scottish dancing, which is a great laugh and always an ice breaker, as many people attend the balls just with groups of friends, not with a specific partner, and this way, you get to meet people. Balls are often held in the many hotels in St Andrews, although the best ball I have ever been to was held in the Sealife centre! This was very unusual but provided a fantastic atmosphere, dancing amongst the conger eels!
The biggest ball of the year is of course the KK ball. The KK (Kate Kennedy) society is very elitist and public school, admitting only men, but it does a lot of good work, raising money for charity and putting on a pantomime each Christmas. The ball, held every May, is amazing. Although it’s very expensive, a platinum ticket gives you a limousine ride to the park where it’s held, a champagne reception, free drinks and fairground rides all night, and the best bit of all, a helicopter ride! This is an event that everyone should attend at least once whilst at St Andrews – I had a fab time.
There are quite a variety of pubs here (and they do say that one in three students leaves with a drink problem!), more per square foot than anywhere else in Scotland. Often a pub will be associated with a particular group, e.g. Ogstons for the medical students, and Ma Bells is often frequented by the 'yahs'. Unfortunately there are quite a few yahs here (well that may appeal to some people!). To be honest, they get up my nose (I don’t have time for pretentious people), but you meet so many people here that you can find other friends. I am worried however that next year, the yah contingent will dramatically increase in size, with the arrival of Prince William. If anyone happened to catch the Channel 5 documentary, “Student Prince” the other week, you will know that those who spoke about St Andrews made out that it was just an “extension of Eton”. I have never felt like this at all – I arrived here from a state school and never felt out of place. I fear that this is about to change and that state school students will become a minority – I don’t like the way that the university is going since it has heard that royalty will be arriving. The principal’s house has been taken over by the art history department, since it was felt that the existing art history buildings were not of good enough quality for royalty, and the principal has been given a house in a slightly less attractive area (it’s still nice – but nothing can compare to the view of the beach and the golf courses that it used to have).
It is also slightly alarming to hear that the university has accepted many more students than usual – (applications rose by 44%) and there is not enough university accommodation. Whilst first years are guaranteed a place in halls, returning students have been hard hit, with the number of places reserved for second to fourth years drastically reduced. Final year students always used to be assured of a hall place, but now many are forced to find private accommodation. With rents rising from an average of £25-£50 a week, to £50-£100 a week, many will struggle to make ends meet. If this rent increase continues, St Andrews will sadly become a playground of the rich and famous, whose parents can afford the exorbitant prices.
When you get to St Andrews, it’s very easy to make friends, due to the system of academic families we have here. Each first year will be adopted by 3rd or 4th years, who will become academic parents and through whom you will meet more people. The highlight of the year which involves these academic families is raisin weekend. It is a tradition whereby the academic fathers are presented with a bottle of wine, and the children given a raisin string, to decorate your gown. The wine is presented at a tea party on the Sunday afternoon, usually hosted by your academic mum, which is when the drinking starts. After this, your academic dad takes you out to a party. There is a lot of alcohol consumed – and then later regurgitated on the pavement. Not a pretty sight! The following morning, most first year classes are cancelled (why they don’t cancel everyone’s I really don’t know!) and the first year ‘children’ are dressed in various fancy dress costumes, before they assemble in the quad for a foam fight. It does sound strange but it is a unique St Andrew’s tradition and one you will never forget.
The facilities here are generally not bad, although there is certainly still room for improvement. The library in particular could be improved, there never seem to be enough copies of the books. But that's a question of money and I guess most university libraries are in the same position. Still, with the fines they charge you if you forget to take back a short loan book in time then I am sure they will soon be able to affords loads more books! In addition to the concrete monstrosity which is the main library (totally out of keeping with the character of the town since it was built according to plans drawn up for Bristol university) there are also departmental libraries, which are also useful to work in. Staff working in these libraries are generally more helpful than those in the main library as they know their subjects well and can therefore advise on books.
The sports centre here is reasonable - no swimming pool though, although there is a public one. But that is more of a leisure pool really so if you are after serious swimming then forget it! There are good sports ground for a university of such a small size (we only have about 6000 students) and an excellent gym – although this can get very crowded in peak periods. Exercise classes are run on a regular basis, although it’s enough exercise for me just walking up to the sports centre! The Athletics Union runs a variety of clubs, for all sorts of sports, and aimed at all levels, from beginners right through to experts. It’s the perfect opportunity to try a new sport such as archery, skiing, or to improve on something that you already know.
Computer access is usually quite good here, with some 24 hour access rooms and some computer rooms in halls too. There are computers dotted around throughout the entire town, so you’re never too far away from them if you suddenly realise that you have a last minute essay due! More and more students however are bringing their own computers with them, as net access becomes cheaper, it is a more popular option. However, if you’re in hall, connect to the university network and you can download files at what seems like the speed of light – I know friends who have downloaded movies, and here’s me crawling along with my 56K modem!
It can be a little claustrophobic living in St Andrews for students, since it's so small and unless you’ve got a car or a friend with a car, leaving the town isn’t always easy. True, there are buses into Edinburgh and Glasgow, but the journey takes over 2 hours, and not many people I know are prepared to endure that just for a shop or night out. The train service from Leuchars is appalling, not even one train an hour, and when you do get one, the chance of getting a seat is slight. However, the one advantage is that students with all their luggage can usually find a train which goes direct to London Kings Cross – very handy. Just be prepared for the fact that a train advertised as direct may decide to terminate at Edinburgh after all!
Overall I have loved my four years at St Andrews and have made some wonderful friends and have some fantastic memories. True, at the moment, I am sitting here with my case packed, looking forward to flying home in three hours, but I know I will be pleased to be back next week! For me, it was the right choice. I can appreciate that it won’t suit everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time here (and hope the future’s just as good!) I only hope that Prince William’s arrival on the scene in September won’t cause St Andrews to lose any of its charm or unique character.
Great review. Very informative. I'm thinking of applying this year to study English
Badger_Boy 15.02.2004 00:34
My brother graduated from St Andrews with a first class honours degree and loved every minute there, but you are right, the increasing costs will make St Andrews a place for the offspring of the rich and famous only. Steve.
emmaclaire 14.07.2003 19:03
That's funny, we call the yahs rahs at Durham! Emma x