Royal & Ancient

 The Caledonian Sleeper rolled into Edinburgh at about 6:30 AM. A biting cold February wind greeted me as I disembarked from the train and made my through Waverly Station. I was in Scotland as a guest, first of University of Edinburgh, and then of the University of St Andrews. I joined a group of more than forty other school Guidance Counsellors from around the world, but, as we will see, predominantly from North America. We were all accommodated and catered for at the expense of our host universities while going through a programme of presentations and tours to give us insight into each university. 

After two days in Edinburgh we travelled across the Firth of Forth to Fife and St Andrews. From our hotel I was able to breakfast looking out over the 18th fairway of the Old Course of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club to West Sands where the opening scene of the film ‘Chariots of Fire’ was filmed. Not a bad way to start a working day while munching on black pudding and networking with educators from around the globe. I have learnt previously that such tours are relatively common particularly in the United States where they are known as ‘fly ins’ and a staple part of the professional development of school guidance counsellors throughout the North American continent.


So what did I learn? Well I learnt a great deal about each university specifically, and about Scottish Higher Education more generally, as I was supposed to. But what I really learnt most about though was Americans. Did I mention that most of the counsellors on the tours were from the U.S?  There was one from South Africa (me), one from Australia, a handful from Canada and the rest from America (or international or American schools containing American teenagers). This is because American students are of great importance for Scottish Universities and for St Andrews in particular, (there are as many Americans at St Andrews as there are Edinburgh, a university four times the size). 30% of students at St Andrew’s are from outside of the European Union and the majority of these are from America, meaning that close to 20% of the student body is from the USA. This is compared with under two hundred before the year 2000.

Darwinian application systems

Americans can be intense (think giving yourself a round of applause just for making it to the afternoon), they take their profession seriously. With iPads out I assumed my colleagues from across the pond were busy on Facebook but closer examination revealed they were either taking intense and detailed notes, or tweeting to their students back home facts about the university. Why so serious? With so many American counsellors around me I quickly learnt why. The college admission process, perhaps I should call it industry, in the US is competitive. Each counsellor in the room represented a team of 4 or 5 guidance counsellors from the same school, each primed to help their students get into the best colleges. Top independent schools advertise themselves as college prep schools and in addition the industry is saturated with consultants and agents who can help you gain admission to the college of your choice if you think your school guidance counsellor is not up to it. Excessive you might think. Maybe, but in an environment where student interest is ‘tracked’ by colleges maybe not. 

Yes, tracked. The colleges call it ‘due interest’. American students are primed by their guidance counsellors to display interest through taking part in campus tours, attending summer programs, making phone calls and sending e-mails. All to make sure their interest in a university is logged, which may make the crucial difference as to whether a student is accepted or not. This is in addition to an application process that includes essay writing, teacher recommendations, and counsellor evaluations, proof of community service, SAT’s and school transcripts. 

In addition to all this more and more students aspire to university which puts a huge pressure on places at US Colleges. Many counsellors spoke to me of the changes in this regard, where parents have unrealistic expectations of the child’s university admission chances based on an outdated idea of how easy it was to get admitted twenty or more years ago.  Very often this pressure is transferred from high fee paying parents on to students and guidance counsellors. A university like St Andrews,as with any UK university for that matter, which does not track interest, and simply admits students based on their marks, one teacher reference and a personal statement, is like a beacon of grace. 

5 Reasons why Americans love St Andrew’s

In turn international students generally, and North American students particularly are important for Scottish universities, most notably St Andrew’s, Edinburgh and Glasgow. At any Scottish university a Scottish or EU student can go for free provided they are accepted by the university. Through some bizarre twist of political fate this means a student from Latvia can go to the University of Edinburgh for free while a student from London has to cough up some nine thousand pounds. No one at both universities I visited was either able or prepared to defend this system, understandably in my opinion.

What it also means of course is that it is very expensive for the Scottish Parliament, who have to cover the costs for every Dougal, Dimitri and Anastasia admitted to Scottish universities, no matter which part of the EU they come from, other than England, Wales and Northern Ireland of course. For this reason they cap the number of places available to Scottish and EU students. This then allows a university like St Andrew’s to supplement their funding by admitting international students who pay full fees. Internationals Admissions teams of ten or so staff at both Edinburgh and St Andrew’s make sure that they reap their share of the international harvest.  At St Andrew’s in particular many of these were American, nothing is more reassuring to an American than another American

1. Fees

The University of St Andrews and students from the U.S. are like a marriage made in heaven. Americans tend to have more money than most and so can more comfortably pay the fees required. In fact fees at UK universities compare very favourably to the expense of a Liberal Art College in the USA. Sixteen thousand pounds for tuition and six thousand for residential cost make a total of around twenty two thousand pounds a year. (About 400,000 Rand for those of you who are counting).  This is compared to forty seven thousand U.S. Dollars for a college like Lynn University (R583, 000) or fifty seven thousand (R719, 000) for somewhere like Harvard.  Fees at a Scottish university can only really be seen as cheap when compared to American standards. (Exchange rates based on 2015)


Meanwhile St Andrews are receiving sixteen thousand pounds plus for each international student that they admit that they would not otherwise have. In a country that does not have a culture of endowments to create additional income this is vital to the university’s growth and survival as a top ranked institution. This marriage like arrangement is even consummated in the form of a jointly awarded Bachelor of Arts in International Honours degree from both the St Andrew’s University and the College of William & Mary in Virginia, the second oldest college in the U.S.A.

2. Rankings

It’s also worth noting that students from the US will often look at rankings too and so for somewhere like Edinburgh (ranked as high as 17th in the World) compared to Emory (a great US Private University ranked at 156 in the same rankings but charging R531,000 per year), it’s a no-brainer.

3. Location

At the start of the conference the International Admissions team at St Andrews made a big play of Scotland’s location as an international destination hub. I had always thought of it as somewhat remote. Go to Paris (like Euro Disney) if you really want to be central in Europe. However compared to the United States, Scotland really is close to any number of countries and their capital cities. In a land where you can fly for 5 hours and still not leave national airspace this is a big selling point.

Americans don’t like leaving America. Stats vary but between 80-95% of Americans do not hold a passport. Why should they, the States are so diverse that everything they need and would want to see can be found within them.  Consider that there are 4200 universities in the USA this means that if you managed to list one hundred American Universities (go on try it) there will still be 4100 universities in the States alone that you knew nothing about.

So why leave the safety and provision of the United States? Well there are those that want to travel and gain international exposure (International relations is by far the popular course for Americans at both Edinburgh and St Andrews). If you are an American where do you go to get this? According to a recent Gallup Poll, the most loved foreign county for Americans is unsurprisingly Canada which scored a 92% favorability rating, right behind is Britain on 90%. For an American seeking an international experience the UK is perfect. It is a safe foreign destination, and what’s more they speak English and are within a few hours of well over a dozen foreign countries.

4. Liberal Arts

So why not go to England? Many do of course, but Scotland seems disproportionately popular with Americans. Perhaps it is the similarity of the Scottish degree to the Liberal Arts degree in the States. There are strong links between the Scottish and U.S. Higher Ed systems. Benjamin Franklin among others attend St Andrews and is thought to have taken back the degree structure and expanded it into the Liberal Arts model that U.S. Colleges are famed for. The relative flexibility of the Scottish degree contrasts favourable with the rigidness of the system  in the rest of the UK.

5. History

What cannot be discounted is the allure of the location of somewhere like St Andrews. As a medieval town, history and tradition are everywhere. For a relatively new country like the States, this sense of history is a big pull. Whether it is the ruins of the coastal castle hidden in the mist or the origins of tradition shrouded in the mists of time, it all adds to the atmospheric environment that a town like St Andrews creates. It genuinely looks like one of the seven ancient universities of the English speaking world that it actually is. 

The University is also associated with royalty, King James 1 or (James VI as he is known in Scotland) donated his library to St Andrews. It is also where the current Royals met. When our guide pointed out the hall where Prince William resided, out came the iPhone’s to capture the location, followed by the questions about the famous fashion show where Kate made a play to get back her man. 

What about South Africans?

Like the historic club and home of golf situated in the town, the University of St Andrews is itself both royal and ancient. It is not hard to see why this university, and its neighbour Edinburgh, are enormously attractive to Americans seeking an international experience. Like William and Kate they seem like a perfect match. But are they a good option for South Africans? More to come on this topic.


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