At St Andrews, we have the highest proportion of students living in University managed accommodation (halls of residence basically), at just under 50%. Students are nationally (in the UK) exempt from paying Council Tax. This is because as graduates they are highly likely to be net contributors to society for the rest of their lives. And, as students, we often struggle to pay for their further education living costs and without the time to support themselves in full time employment.
As of the 1st April, Scottish Water have decided to begin charging water usage in halls of residence. This cost is being passed on to students, which will result in around an additional 2% on hall fees. For the most expensive student town in the UK, this is clearly not OK.
More importantly, why do Scottish Water think that they can get away with a loophole that allows them to pass these costs to students? How can we expect the university to absorb this new cost without it affecting student spend elsewhere? There is a new imbalance between students staying in halls and those without. The effect may be to contribute to pushing students out of halls, where they are at their safest.
And this problem is multiplied across all Scottish university students. This blanket charge, which is clearly at odds with the orthodoxy on student council and water charges elsewhere, is severely damaging. Student rents at St Andrews and elsewhere rise each year beyond inflation to cope with refurbishment and redevelopment works, and another 2%, hundreds of pounds, is just not feasible or morally justifiable.
I’m going to continue talking to other student unions about this to see what we can do together. Glasgow have already posted about the issue here and we’ll look at launching a letter writing campaign too. What matters for now is that we don’t let this fall from the agenda and you, students that these charges will affect, become aware and start to discuss why this is important to you.
I’m copying below some information about a Student Ambassadors fundraising scheme that I’ve just come across - as if there wasn’t enough evidence of students helping to ensure access to St Andrews here’s another one:
For one day this week, our Student Ambassadors will give up some of their own income for the benefit of future students of St Andrews. The unique event, dubbed Day Without Pay, is part of a major fundraising effort undertaken by the Ambassadors this year. All money raised will go to the Ambassador Scholarship fund, which is granted to an incoming student to help with the cost of University. With last year’s efforts bringing in £1300, the hard-working bunch is hoping to raise £2000 by the end of this year.
I’m delighted with the progress that we are making with the Student Ambassadors on such an important issue to us at St Andrews. Tangible results, not shout-y headlines please!
The University Ambassador scheme aims to raise the aspirations of school pupils through a number of widening access projects. An exciting new project named ‘Beyond Fife’ is an extension of this work but it is unique in that is the first project to be student organised and delivered. It is led by students and aims to inspire school pupils to consider university and, more widely, Higher Education in general, by recounting university experiences and delivering Q&A sessions.
The first school visit took place on Friday 22nd March at Falkirk High School, with more school visits to take place over the coming months. Association President, Freddie Fforde, SRC Member for Widening Access, Avalon Borg, and Vice Principal Ambassador of Widening Participation, Kerry Campbell, attended and were astounded by the turn out from S4-6 pupils. It was predicted that 25 students would attend but 55 students were present on the day. By sharing their experiences at St Andrews, Freddie, Avalon and Kerry were able to show the diversity of students present at St Andrews, highlighting the community spirit at this university. It is hoped that many of the pupils present will take up the offer of attending a Shadow Day at the university in the next academic year.
The St Andrew’s Students’ Association and the Student Ambassadors have endeavoured to take this project forward as a joint venture. After discussions with University members of staff, the University has committed to provide funding for fifteen school visits to high schools outside of Fife over the next three years. Funding has also been provided to allow students from these high schools to visit the University to shadow a current student for the day. This will allow school pupils to experience lectures in a subject of their choice and University life before they apply.
Freddie Fforde, commented: “This is a major step forward for us in the challenge to widen participation at St Andrews. Our message all year has been to prove that St Andrews, the university and its students, encourages applications from all students of all backgrounds.
Our University has consistently featured a poor record on the diversity of its Scottish students in particular and I have spent much of the year analysing the reasons behind this. The image of St Andrews as an undesirable location needs to change amongst the families that typically look west for further education, and students visiting hundreds of school pupils in person has been a powerful way of getting beyond the headlines.
The road to this point has involved extensive planning and preparation from the Student Ambassadors team, and in ‘Beyond Fife’ I believe that we are beginning to see the answer to the question ‘what does more look like?’ I call on the University to increase the funding for programmes that will continue to stretch outreach across all of Scotland.
In light of the difficult situation that St Andrews is consistently placed by some aggressive media, which only makes the image problem worse, I hope that measures such as this and our own Students’ Association Bursary Fund will challenge that problem.”
Kerry Campbell comments: “Being from Falkirk, it was a great experience to visit a school in my home area to speak about my university experience. I understand the worries and difficulties pupils from this area may be facing when considering whether or not to apply to University. I hope that by sharing my experiences, some students may think about Higher Education in a different light.”
Avalon Borg, the Students’ Representative Council member for Widening Access, commented: “I believe that sharing our experiences as students helps to change the minds of some students who weren’t thinking about Higher Education in the first place. While this was just the pilot visit, there wasn’t a dull face in the room and I can sincerely say the students were engaged in what we had to say.”
Yesterday I put my new shoes on and ran twelve miles. That meant from St Andrews to Leuchars and back, with no break. For most people, including me, it’s madness. Why? Simply, me and a team of eight others are training to run the Edinburgh Marathon on 26th May in order to raise thousands of pounds between us for the Students’ Association Bursary Fund. We created the Bursary Fund this year
The invitation to University Hall offered me the first chance to revisit the Hall for some months, and a reminder of how lucky its residents are. The first hall that was ever used by students in Scotland, and built for the purpose, the beautiful building was originally paid for from a combination of donations and surpluses from the Lady Literate in Arts scheme. The LLA was a distance learning course for women established in 1876,
The Herald has today quoted the Principal of St Andrews as saying: “I think – I’m going to say something that is very unpopular – £9000 a year is very little to pay for a St Andrews education because it’s worth a great deal more.”. This is as unhelpful as it is unpopular. It led to the front page headline of “£9,000 fee ‘very little to pay’ “.
As currencies are designed to be interchangeable for just about anything, readers will read this as the value of several months wages, a new car, family food shopping for a year or a downpayment on a house.
In the context of her interview, Professor Richardson goes on to qualify that ”I don’t think because some students are paying fees we should start treating them somehow as if they are customers. That’s the marketisation of education and that way I think is corrosive.” I don’t think that the nuance of the message is what readers will take away from the article. Nor do I think that commentators waste any time in making the message their own, as they have done in the past.
£9,000 fees are a bad thing for higher education not because they help to fill the funding gap created by the cut in government funding, in some ways a forced necessary evil, but because of the message they send. Communicating the repayment system and bursary schemes to RUK students is much, much harder than the general narrative that universities apparently require familiarity and comfort with four figure sums.
Robin Parker, President of NUS Scotland, is usually quick to point the media to our position. He has done so again today. I like Robin, enjoy working with him and wish him well in his political career, but I wish that he and others would resist the temptation to draw conclusions out of context. There is some correlation amongst universities in Scotland between their entry requirements, their proximity to concentrated populations and their ability to fulfill spaces in an exact manner - is it a surprise that whilst Highlands and Islands cannot fill its funded places, the universities of Glasgow have high proportions of live-at-home students who might not be able to afford living away?
Hate the Herald, blame Nick Clegg, do what you like. The fact is that whether it’s £9,000 fees or postcode classification of Scottish students, St Andrews has an image problem and the cure must start at home. Fundamentally we are an institution of education - on this the Principal has never wavered, making it clear that academic quality will not be sacrificed to manipulate figures on our diversity - but we are also an institution of aspiration. Valuing the cost of our education in public is not a strategy to win that aspiration, whatever the nuance of the message.
Clearly, the context is not an excuse and our university must continue to do more. The question I have been asking myself all year is though “What does more look like?”. Heady statements, political ‘wins’ and fighting the institution may sound good and look pretty but it’s the tangible achievements (increase in bursary money, student led school visits, challenging the image of a ‘closed door’ university) which make the difference. Sadly, it is too often the negative spin that reaches the front page (where is the front-page coverage of this, this or this?).
When I am asked by a newspaper for a comment on anything that relates to the St Andrews image, it is often phrased in a provocative way. For example, today, concerning Professor Richardson’s comments:
"Obviously this is quite a controversial thing to say… and I was interested in what you had to say about such sentiments"
The Herald reporter can keep their bait and I will bite my tongue. The result of my stirring the pot on this issue? A false sense of personal achievement and the opportunity for the posh-St Andrews-elite-expensive-snob story to run on and on. I ran to represent students here, present and future. Representation is not unwittingly fanning the flames of division with sound bites. Across Scotland, students are preparing for their Highers and Advanced Highers. The ‘what next’ discussion for school leavers over family breakfast will be brought no closer to university on account of a flippant sound bite. Widening participation in our universities has nothing to do with one liners in the printed press.
We are rightly proud of our academic standing. We are rightly proud of quality. We are rightly proud of the lessons learned over six hundred years. But we cannot forget that we are owned by the British public, and we owe none more than we do the Scottish people. It’s important that we don’t allow this shouting match to drown out what we’re focussing on - opportunities to access education.
The university must be doing more, but I am happy to recognise when it takes steps in the right direction. I would rather that the narrative was redirected on to what we are doing (see here), to make access a reality, and to what we can learn from others. Ultimately, it is this message, that anyone can aspire to a top level university education (St Andrews or anywhere else), which I would rather the press and public circulated.
Or else, what? We continue shovelling headlines around and forget that we’re ignoring the very people we’re supposedly arguing about. Education for all? The conversation starts when the fog settles on chest-thumping heroes and the opportunities for access can be seen for what they are. Only then, in rational context, can we stand and assess the road ahead.