Class and the St Andrews Student Experience

Having lived in Malawi and South Africa, I thought moving to Scotland would be easy. As a middle-class Canadian, moving to another Western culture didn’t require any pre-departure or inter-cultural training. Admittedly, one of my major concerns was grappling with a thick Scottish accent, but I’d survived minibuses in major southern African cities. Moving from one ‘white’ country to another – easy, right?

Eighth months later, I’m more aware of my Canadian identity than ever before. The University of St Andrews has a notorious reputation for letting in very few students from lower socio-economic classes. In a country that boasts seven social classes, St Andrews recruited 13 people – out of 7,370 undergraduates – from “deprived” backgrounds in 2010. Many conversations with classmates contain casual (and explicit) questions about what your parents do, or where you went to school. Imagine undertaking a masters and discussing where you went to high school—some of us don’t have brains that rewind that far back!

You don’t have to look far to see St Andrew’s lack of diversity (and not just because the town only has 3 main streets). The town is dotted with clones sporting the St Andrews uniform: Hunter Wellingtons and Barbour jackets. St Andrews has an impressive collection of eclectic passport holders for such a homogenous fashion culture. While I would never conclude that I had a “classless” post-secondary experience in Canada, I do think the way class issues permeate Canadian post-secondary education is very different than in St Andrews. Perhaps because in Canada we have an embedded in a sense of ‘political correctness’, we don’t explicitly demarcate social lines based on class. Of course, that’s dangerous in its own right because class discrimination is obscured and rarely discussed.

In St Andrews, class is much more present — it’s a marker of pride, and an acceptable conversation topic. If you fall on the “wrong” side of the class divide, you certainly wouldn’t have the funds to sustain yourself on the St Andrews ball and fashion circuit for long. And you likely wouldn’t sport the standard St Andrews uniform. Sure, St Andrews draws in students from different parts of the world, but a diverse campus is much more than the country you come from. And this is where St Andrews admissions is missing the point. Recruiting from a transnational capital class doesn’t add substantive or meaningful diversity. It only feeds into a false sense of prestige and reputation that sustains privilege, reducing education into a brand.

This article has been cross-posted at MindThis.

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2 thoughts on “Class and the St Andrews Student Experience

  1. I had a very similar experience during my undergraduate degree, at a private liberal arts university in upstate New York… was also the first time I’d seen such explicit racial segregation. I think you’re right- in Canada, these things are present but we bury them under political correctness.

  2. anonymous says:

    I agree with you that coming to St Andrews I became more aware of class, but I don’t think it is as extreme as you have placed it. It took me 8 months in my first year to realise that was the here. I had a few friends who felt like leaving early on because of such a culture, but I told them to stay because I hadn’t witnessed that and instead met a great amount of people from really great backgrounds. It really depends on where you look. If you go to the right events you’ll find people of all classes. I haven’t been asked about the jobs of my parents once. Besides, this is Scotland where a lot of people get to come to St Andrews for free. That allows a lot of less privileged people to have the chance to get in and I’ve become acquainted with a lot of them.

    The Americas have some other problems I’ve noticed more since going back and forth. I was happy to get away from the godlike status that’s put on sports athletes and I was happy that the people who were considered cool here were the normal people. Those people who take class too far and be full of themselves usually are the ones that are laughed at. I’m glad that St Andrews has that.

    So again, go to the right places and your experience will surely change and possibly you’ll find yourself being able to have friends from everywhere visiting you in Canada and allowing you to do the same somewhere else in the world.

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