The Top University in the UK is not Oxford or Cambridge

In its almost 30-year history of ranking universities in the UK, The Sunday Times has placed a university that is neither Oxford nor Cambridge at the very top. You should be forgiven for thinking it may be a Russell Group university, but it is not one, and it is not even in England.

The top university, according to The Sunday Times, is St Andrews in Scotland. I will later highlight the success factor for this university but, before I do that, I must say that there are a handful of non-Russell Group universities that have consistently come very high in not only the UK ranking but in the world university ranking table.

It is widely accepted that the university from where one obtains one’s degree is a huge factor in determining not only career prospects but lifetime earning power. A BBC survey published in 2018 showed a significant difference in earning power between women who attended the top universities in comparison to those who graduated from the lower ranking ones. Although that particular survey focused on females, I strongly believe this is the case for every gender and it is worldwide. Research by Harvard Business Review confirms this. (See below for a link to both the BBC and the Harvard Review webpages)

Many consider it very unfair for people who have attended certain elite universities to have so much power and advantage over everyone else. In the UK, at least, this development, of a university that does not belong to the elite Russell Group topping the rankings, will be seen by many as a victory for the common man. Whilst I see this as a significant development, and something that could help inspire many young people who have not or will not be able to gain admission to a Russell Group university, I think too much should not be made of this for several reasons.

Diversity must be encouraged in all aspects of life, and the university sector is a very important one. A more diverse society, I believe, is more progressive, healthier and richer.

There are several reasons why I think one should not read too much into this and below are just some of them:

a. Irrespective of the position in the university ranking table or Russell Group credential, many people deem St Andrews to be a very prestigious university
b. Ranking of universities is a rather complex task. There is an element of subjectivity in the criteria that are used to rank universities
c. St Andrews’ entry requirement in terms of A-level or equivalent is higher than many Russell Group universities. In fact, it has the highest UCAS point for
entry standard out of all UK universities.

The reality of human society is that it is hierarchical – just like other mammals. Yes, humans are more intelligent, and we should not just segregate people for the sake of it, or just to boost some people’s egos. That is not progress, but vanity upon vanity. If all universities were the same, it would be a very dull and uninspiring world, with progress being very slow. What is key is that elitism is based on merit, and everyone should have the opportunity to aspire and become whatever they choose to be, without undue prejudice. Any organisation that is too exclusive will usually die a slow and painful death.

St Andrews is not the only high-ranking university that is not a member of Russell Group, Bath, Lancaster, Aberdeen are among the others. In fact, Durham, Exeter and York did not join the Russell Group until 2012 and they have all always been very reputable universities.

In the next blogpost, I will speak about what make St Andrews so successful. I will also discuss in more detail whether going to a top university should be a matter of life and death!

Links – BBC earning potential