It’s been a stellar year for Scottish universities in the Good University Guide with the two top institutions in this year’s league tables receiving accolades.
The University of St Andrews has won our University of the Year for Teaching Quality award and finished runner-up for the overall UK University of the Year award, while Dundee retains its Scottish University of the Year title, earning its own shortlisting for the overall UK title too.
Scottish universities, which account for 15 of the 128 universities in this guide, made up two of the five nominations for University of the Year. St Andrews, which ranks third in the UK this year behind Oxbridge, is the only university in our guide that manages to combine a top ranking for teaching quality with an equivalent ranking in the league table. First in Scotland overall, it also boasts the best student satisfaction rates north of the border.
With just 7,000 undergraduates and set around four main streets, Scotland’s first university and the third oldest in the English-speaking world offers students an intimate setting in which to live and learn.
Its size, a good student/staff ratio and classes taught by experts in their field speak to the quality of the experience, says Professor Sally Mapstone, the institution’s new principal and vice-chancellor.
“That means when teaching is taking place here the staff know their students particularly well,” she says. “They are frequently taught by people on their reading list and bibliographies. It reinforces the sense that this is research-led teaching.”
Mapstone, who, like her freshers, started this month, says the university also works hard to gather feedback from students and to listen to them. Its efforts to address areas that did less well in last year’s National Student Survey are reflected in a significant improvement in satisfaction levels.
“This is not a university that stands still,” says Mapstone, former pro-vice-chancellor for education at the University of Oxford, who has swapped cities with her predecessor Professor Louise Richardson, now in charge at her old stomping ground.
“Our Homeric motto is ever to excel. We are doing well but we want to do even better,” Mapstone says. “If we see there is somewhere we have lapsed a bit we look at that, interrogate it and see what we can do to be better.”
Mapstone, who specialises in Older Scots literature, is impressed with the emphasis on innovative teaching at St Andrews. The university, which sits among the world’s top 100, ranks 11th in the UK and first in Scotland for the quality of its research. It has high entry standards and one of the lowest dropout rates in the country, and more than 90% of its graduates leave with a first or 2:1 while 83.3% walk into professional jobs or graduate-level study within six months.
St Andrews is a big draw for English students and also on the world stage, with 31% of undergraduates coming from overseas. America accounted for 17% of the undergraduate population last year.
Having royal alumni certainly keeps its profile high. Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, who met here as students 15 years ago, took part in a number of fundraising events for the university’s 600th anniversary £100m appeal, of which the duke is patron.
Mapstone’s principalship will be guided by three values: excellence, inclusivity and fairness. Her “to do” list includes reviewing the curriculum and increasing diversity by attracting more overseas students — she is off to the Far East in November — to widening the socioeconomic mix.
“St Andrews could be a significantly more diverse community. It does need to up its game in terms of access,” says Mapstone. “It is something I intend to make a priority.”
Modern facilities are plentiful in the medieval town, including the new eight-court sports arena, part of a £14m redevelopment of the sporting facilities. “It is a wonderful, inspiring place in that history is all about you here, but at the same time it is a place that reinvents itself,” says Mapstone. “The students love being here. Everybody bumps into one another in the supermarket, including me. That makes people get on. There is a very strong collegiate sense.”
Barely 10 miles up the intellectual Gold Coast, the University of Dundee ranks second in Scotland and 28th in the UK, and shares many similarities with its more established neighbour in Fife, from its sense of community and its partnership with students to its focus on innovation and its location.
Dundee has jumped 21 places up our table in the past four years, chiefly on the back of rising student satisfaction. Dundee, part of the University of St Andrews until 1967, ranks seventh overall in the UK and second in Scotland for both teaching quality and student experience.
“We have a core purpose which is about transforming lives,” says principal and vice-chancellor Professor Sir Pete Downes. “It is not about what we do but why we do it. Why we do things is to have an impact on the world outside the university. That relates both to our research and teaching.”
The university’s areas of excellence include its medical school at Ninewells, famous for pioneering keyhole surgery and its expertise in diabetes, cancer and heart disease, and the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, where research into the 3D visualisation of shipwreck sites has led to changes in how salvage companies work.
Dundee students leave well-equipped to make their own mark on the world. More than three-quarters (77.8%) bag a first or 2:1 with 80.9% gainfully employed in graduate-level jobs or study within six months.
Most students are based on the compact campus near the city centre, where more than £200m was recently invested in the development and refurbishment of facilities. The UK’s only Unesco city of design is also being transformed with a £1bn regeneration of its waterfront. Its centrepiece will be the new £80m V&A Museum of Design, due to open in 2018, which the university played a key role in bringing to the city.
“That kind of thing creates a real buzz that was not there five or six years ago,” says Downes. “A buzz that says Dundee is on the up.”
With negotiations due on the next year’s funding settlement for universities, he hopes the Scottish government will invest at a level that will ensure institutions can continue to punch above their weight on the international stage. Downes also plans to expand the number of overseas students and increase growth from other parts of the UK. “Our ambitions are primarily to create sustainable conditions that allow us to invest in a healthy way in all the good things we do,” he says.