It is no secret that our university is awash with those from more affluent backgrounds. You can see it in the lines of well-appointed cars that draw up outside halls on move-in day, and in those Facebook photos of long summer breaks trekking in Nepal or lounging poolside in Miami.
Most importantly, you can see it in the stats.
Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) shows that those educated at fee-paying schools have made up over 41% of the two most recent St Andrews’ intakes.
Forty-one percent. An extraordinary figure, especially in a country where less than 1-in-20 are privately educated. Of course, this is no coincidence. We all know that greater opportunity inevitably breeds greater success, and, with an institution as fine as ours, it is only natural that those who attend the best schools attend the best universities.
However, an education at an independent school doesn’t guarantee a successful application. Hard work does. Whether you went to Marlborough or to a comprehensive in Glasgow’s east end, you got here on the back of your own blood, sweat and tears.
Sadly, the education debate neglects this. Often, the privately educated are subject to the spiteful suggestion that their achievements are diminished by their fortunate upbringing. This now extends to the top state schools, with a toxic mix of opportunistic politicians and bitter parents, carping from lower down the league tables, portraying achievement at said schools to be the product of privilege alone.
If we are to bring about change in our broken education system, we must learn from the best, not lampoon them. It is by improving standards in our comprehensive schools, and copying the working practices of the best, that institutions like St Andrews will enrol more young people from our poorest communities.
As things stand, the obvious lack of social mobility at our university, and the dearth of working-class Scots especially, should worry us all.
So what can we do about it?
With education a hot topic in today’s politics, there is no shortage of solutions to bridging the “attainment gap.”
Increased provision of grammar schools springs to mind. As does an expansion of bursary programmes at private schools, giving more of our most disadvantaged young people a greater chance of improved academic attainment and subsequent success at the best universities in the country.
The UK government’s creation of not just “free schools,” but also the massive expansion in the number of academies south of the border should be heralded as a triumph in the fight for education liberalisation. An academy’s ability to opt out of the National Curriculum or set its own term times, for example, bears all the hallmarks of successful independent schooling.
Essentially, schools are most successful where government is small.
The Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) talks of “returning education to the market”, calling for government funding of education to be slashed dramatically, with the state having “little or no part in the supervision of schools or of education in general”.
Whilst these proposals may seem radical, they’re not new. In the 1850s, nearly all schools were independently managed, and nearly every child attended school. Literacy rates were higher too. An example from the past, yes, but the guiding principle remains the same: we don’t need the state in order to have a successful education.
So it is only with this kind of radicalism that we will improve our state system. For as long as we cling to the top-down approach and the stale Statism that epitomises comprehensive schooling, we do our most disadvantaged young people a great disservice.
For as long as we reject the tried and tested methods of the private sector, and fail to apply the principles of light touch regulation and free-choice to all schools, that 41% figure will not change.
Millions of young, working class boys and girls will be let down and a result, and institutions like the University of St Andrews will be poorer for it.