University of St Andrews knocks Oxbridge off league table top spot

University of St Andrews knocks Oxbridge off league table top spot for the first time due to how well it delivered online learning during pandemic

  • Oxford and Cambridge beaten for the first time in 30-year history of the guide 
  • Annual Good University Guide is compiled by The Times and The Sunday Times
  • Majority of universities see a dramatic fall in student satisfaction during Covid
  • Imperial College London labelled University of the Year for student satisfaction 

Oxford and Cambridge universities have been beaten in the national league table for the very first time after St Andrews was named the top university in the UK.

Before now no university had ever been placed higher than the elite Oxbridge institutions in the 30-year history of the Good University Guide, compiled by The Times and The Sunday Times.

The majority of universities saw a dramatic fall in student satisfaction and teaching quality results this year due to closed campuses and a shift to online lessons.

The University of St Andrews has become the first institution to displace Cambridge and Oxford Universities from the top of the The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide in the 30-year history of the guide

St Andrews, praised for flipping its small-class teaching model to online delivery, subsequently saw only a small decline in satisfaction rates to take number one spot for 2021.

Cambridge, however, dropped from first to third, while Oxford kept hold of the second place it achieved in 2020. 

Bosses at St Andrews said it has been closing in on the number one spot after consistently being among the top three in the guide in recent years.

Alastair McCall, editor of The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide, agreed and said the result was ‘no fluke’ for the Scottish institution which has been around for 600 years. 

Cambridge University dropped from first place to third in this year’s guide as a majority of universities reported a dramatic fall in student satisfaction because of campus closures during the pandemic, and the subsequent move to online learning

Oxford University kept hold of the second place it achieved in 2020. On that occasion, it finished behind Cambridge University, in a 1-2 finish for the Oxbridge institutions which had remained the same until this year’s guide

Professor Sally Mapstone, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews, said: ‘I am thrilled for our students, staff and alumni. They are the people who made this happen.

‘As one community, we strive constantly for excellence, and have a strategy that hasn’t been afraid to believe St Andrews could challenge at the very top by combining the best teaching, world-leading research, and an unswerving commitment to student satisfaction and achievement.

‘Of course we’ll enjoy this remarkable result, and I expect there may be a little good-natured cross-border teasing amongst colleagues.

The Good University Guide 2021: Top 10

Source: The Times and The Sunday Times 

‘Principals have a longstanding tradition of celebrating good league table results, and quietly ignoring those that may not be so flattering, and I have every intention of observing that tradition. 

‘We have been in very good company close to the top of this important league table for several years but, until now, always on someone’s shoulder.

‘I hope the fact that the staff and students of a small, Scottish institution have been able to break through the hitherto impenetrable Oxbridge ceiling will inspire others, and show that the status quo is only that if you allow it to be.’

President of the St Andrews Students’ Association, Lottie Doherty, said it was ‘amazing news’.

She added: ‘It’s brilliant that St Andrews has made number one, not just for the University and its staff but for all the students here as well.

‘It really is a testament to how well the last year has gone despite the difficult conditions.

‘Students worked so hard to get good grades and engage with their classes and studies even though it has been online and under very difficult circumstances.

‘It is brilliant to see that recognised.

‘I think it really shows how hard working and passionate the students and staff are about St Andrews and about their learning to adapt to such difficult circumstances and come out number one this year.’

The guide shows only two universities – Imperial College London and the University of Surrey – out of 132 on the list managed to increase their results from the annual national student survey (NSS) amid the pandemic.

However, Mr McCall said St Andrews’ achievement in topping the institutional table ‘should not be underestimated’.

He added: ‘Never before has any university other than Cambridge and Oxford finished top (of the) domestic ranking of universities. 

‘It is no fluke. The university has been closing in on the Oxbridge duopoly for several years, buoyed by outstanding levels of student satisfaction which have peaked during the past year of pandemic disruption on campus.

‘The lead St Andrews now has over other universities in this key area of university performance is remarkable.

‘Its wider contribution as a centre of teaching and outstanding research marks it out as a global player in the international higher education marketplace.

‘Strange to say for an institution that has been around for 600 years, but topping our UK rankings for the first time truly marks St Andrews “arrival” as a serious challenger to Oxford and Cambridge.’

St Andrews University Chancellor, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, said: ‘This welcome and deserved achievement reflects the outstanding nature of the student experience at St Andrews University.

‘Under the inspired leadership of the Principal, Professor Sally Mapstone, and her senior team, the standards set in these difficult times in teaching, research, and management at every level are truly remarkable.’ 

Imperial was named University of the Year for student satisfaction – a notable achievement in a year which saw many campus closures. 

It also overtook the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) as the top university in London, now ranked nationally fourth and fifth respectively.

Mr McCall added: ‘Imperial College showed the university sector how to deliver higher education for undergraduates in lockdown.

‘No-one did it better, a fact reflected in this year’s national student survey, where Imperial improved its scores for student satisfaction during a year that took a heavy toll on those scores elsewhere.’ 

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