Forget Oxbridge: St Andrews knocks top universities off perch

Latest Guardian University Guide shows leading trio are in league of their own for undergraduate courses

Oxbridge is being replaced at the apex of UK universities by “Stoxbridge” after St Andrews overtook Oxford and Cambridge at the top of the latest Guardian University Guide.

It is the first time the Fife university has been ranked highest in the Guardian’s annual guide to undergraduate courses, pushing Oxford into second and Cambridge into third.

Detailed analysis of the rankings – which includes data on student satisfaction and attainment, graduate outcomes and staff-student ratios – shows that the three universities are in a league of their own, with only fractional differences separating first and third places, but a much larger gap to their rivals, such as Imperial College London.

Dame Sally Mapstone, the vice-chancellor and principal of St Andrews, said: “I hope that St Andrews’ terrific students and all of my hard-working colleagues will feel the recognition of this very significant achievement. They entirely deserve it.

“The amalgam of our strengths in the key areas which the Guardian measures has set us narrowly ahead of some of the very best universities in the world. For a small Scottish university to shake the established order repeatedly is a great tribute to everyone who works and studies here.”

St Andrews is the third-oldest university in the UK, with its foundation in 1413 predated only by Oxford and Cambridge, whose earliest royal charters were awarded in the 13th century.

The Stoxbridge trio also dominate the individual rankings for undergraduate subjects in the Guardian guide: Oxford, Cambridge and St Andrews take first place in 30 out of the 66 subject areas. Cambridge leads the way in 15 subjects but St Andrews is ranked first in a string of major subject areas, including history, economics, chemistry and English.

Matt Hiely-Rayner, who compiled the guide, said there was little to separate the three Stoxbridge members, with the narrowest difference between first and third place in the guide’s history.

“What’s clearer is the extent to which these three are removed from the rest of the sector. But between them there isn’t much difference, they are so close that tiny judgments would make a difference in the order,” he said.

What benefits St Andrews this year is slightly higher entry grades among incoming undergraduates, as well as high levels of student satisfaction with teaching and the high proportion who go on to graduate employment or further study.

“St Andrews offers slightly different subjects than Oxford and Cambridge, and because of that, it has a slightly better performance,” Hiely-Rayner said.

Outside of Stoxbridge, there were improved performances by Imperial, which was named the Guardian’s university of the year after rising to fifth place. It has the highest levels of student satisfaction for teaching in England, as well as powerful performances in engineering subjects, including top spot in the new category of aerospace engineering.

Imperial also excels in helping students establish their careers. In recent years, more than 94% have found graduate-level positions within 15 months of earning their degrees.

The rankings recognise strong improvements in universities across the sector, with several able to celebrate improving their positions. The University of West London is ranked 23rd overall, continuing its climb from 96th in the 2017 guide, thanks to an exceptional performance in student satisfaction surveys. The University of Sunderland has jumped from 92nd to 50th place overall.

Record numbers of school leavers are starting undergraduate courses at UK universities this autumn. The unabated demand for higher education and the mini baby boom that began in the mid-2000s is causing increased competition for places across the sector.

• This article was amended on 24 September 2022. The “Stoxbridge” universities take first place in 30 out of 66 undergraduate subject areas; not 36 subject areas as an earlier version said.


Richard Adams and Rachel Hall

The GuardianTramp

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