Connecting the world

Connecting the world

Sally Mapstone, Principal, University of St Andrews, has a bold vision for growth and development for one of Scotland’s renowned universities.


What key strengths encapsulate Scotland’s education system the best, and how does it differentiate itself from the larger U.K. and other global markets?

The first thing to appreciate is how the Scottish education system differs from the English one. Scottish degrees are routinely four years as opposed to three years, meaning that students have a very distinctive opportunity to avail themselves of two years of sub-honors work where they can take a variety of subjects and then concentrate and build on that in the two final years. Students emerge with a quite diverse type of degree, which is different in kind from the English degree. I can speak on this with some authority, having spent my career at Oxford beforehand. The nature of the four-year structure is really beneficial to the learning experience, and it is why Scottish degrees have such a wide international appeal. At the University of St Andrews, we recruit nearly half of our students internationally. At the moment, they come from over 130 different countries. Actually, 16 percent of our students come from the U.S. That tells you that our degrees are incredibly appealing to students from a very wide range of countries to have this kind of high quality and very gated academic experience.

St Andrews also stands out with the character of our degrees in the wide range of opportunities that they offer to students, which is another distinctive contrast with the English system. It is also important to appreciate that, in regulatory terms, Scottish universities are frequently dealing with two governments, both the Scottish government and the Westminster government. Although education is a devolved matter, which means it sits under the aegis and responsibility of the Scottish government, some of the broader aspects of education, in particular the research framework, sit under the overall governance of the U.K. government. Subsequently, we are frequently engaging with two different sets of authorities, which can be a challenge. However, this also reminds us of the broader context in which we have to operate. In the context of research, of course, that immediately conjures up the challenges that all U.K. universities are facing at the moment in this post-Brexit environment. The whole question of the U.K.’s engagement in Horizon Europe research funding remains so contestable because it has regrettably been drawn into the politics of the settlement between the European Union and the U.K. Government.


Can you provide a rapid overview of the university today? What are some of its flagship academic and research programs, and how does it stand in the global academic landscape?

Among the many accolades we have received, in September of last year, the University of St Andrews was ranked first in the United Kingdom for its student satisfaction and its academic success, ahead of Oxford and Cambridge. That was the first time in 30 years that any university had displaced Oxford and Cambridge. We are talking about The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide, which is regarded as the gold standard of U.K. domestic rankings. We were the first university ever to displace both Oxford and Cambridge at the same time. This result has a lot to do with the fact that we offer a research-informed, education-intense student experience, which is to say that we expect all of our researchers to be available to teach our students throughout their undergraduate careers. This is not something you will find at all U.K. universities. Furthermore, we offer an excellent combination of small class and tutorial teaching, along with researching for lectures and we do that in a way which really emphasizes the significance of the individual in teaching. Our tutors will know how our students are performing at any particular time in the semester and will be very keen to give students feedback on their performances. This really singles us out as offering a high quality, curated educational experience to a very wide range of students.

We are very strong in the liberal arts, but we are also very strong in the sciences as well. There is a vast range of individual student experiences academically, but we also remain very alert to what our students and our staff tell us matters to them. In terms of the overall university experience, we are an exceptionally listening institution. You can see this, for instance, in how we are making sustainability a major theme in our university strategy across the board. We encourage staff and students to revise and reform the curriculum so as to bring sustainability into it, and we incentivize and reward that kind of engagement. We have made being carbon neutral by 2035 the major plank in our university strategy. It is also there in how we are changing our behaviors and our attitudes to address that. We were one of the earliest universities, for example, to create our own biomass plant to heat large portions of our university in a way that is sustainable. Additionally, we have made it very clear that we will include scope three emissions in our bid to become carbon neutral, something that not all other universities have said they are willing to do.


What are the main axes and priorities under your strategic plan? Which new directions has the university taken over the past five years, and what is left to achieve before 2023?

Our strategic plan looks quite different from other institutional strategic plans. Most universities’ strategic plans talk about mission and vision, and then they talk about research, teaching and wider engagement. When I came to St Andrews, I was very clear that I did not want to do that but wanted to listen to our community and bring out the thematic strategic priorities that mattered to them. To that end, we undertook a consultation exercise and from that came our present strategy, which has four key themes: the world-leading St Andrews, diverse St Andrews, global St Andrews and entrepreneurial St Andrews. Those are all things that we either are, or very much aspire to be. World-leading St Andrews speaks to our academic endeavor. Diverse St Andrews speaks to our priority to be an inclusive, open and accessible institution and to genuinely lead the way in terms of developing our identity in that capacity. Global St Andrews is about our international partnerships, be they academic or socially responsible. Entrepreneurial St Andrews was initially the biggest challenge for us because it was about seeking to extend the translation of our activity across the piece into ways which made it more engaged with society from an enterprise and from a commercial perspective. In terms of Scotland’s great potential for engagement with business and industry, let us never forget the creative industries, which are such an important part of the country’s identity. It is profoundly identified with music, performance and film and we pride ourselves on playing a part in that.

Since the pandemic, we have been looking at refreshing our strategy, and we will be drawing out two further themes in relation to that: sustainable St Andrews and digital St Andrews. In our current strategy, digital is there as something that enabled us to do the things that we wanted to do to be world leading. I now see digital St Andrews as very much part of our future identity in the post-pandemic world. Although we are a university that is absolutely rooted in place and in bringing people to St Andrews to have the high-quality in situ St Andrews experience, we also have an opportunity to say what kind of digital offerings we want to purvey. We are certain that we want to make St Andrews available digitally to a wider cohort of people who may not always have the opportunity to come here or to come here for the full length of the normal university course. We are also very aware that research is becoming increasingly digital as big data plays such an important part in subject matters right across the sciences and the arts. Therefore, we are making digital very much one of the new themes in our strategy to expound for ourselves what digital St Andrews means, as opposed to depending on what others define digital as being. It is very important for us that we own it and define it in our own terms.


How has the university contributed to the global response to COVID-19 and stepped up during the pandemic?

With the pandemic, people have really seen the importance of university research, and not just immediate and applied university research, but also the sort of blue sky thinking that lay behind the capacity in Oxford. This is what led the AstraZeneca vaccine to be developed as quickly as it was. We have used our expertise in a variety of ways in relation to the pandemic. Several of our more senior scientists in particular have been positioned on the U.K.’s major advisory bodies, with a range of scientists in SAGE, for example.

People tend to think that this is often very much within the area of epidemiology and infectious diseases, but one of our most influential scientists sitting on SAGE has actually been Professor Stephen Reicher, who appears really constantly in the press, pointing out the behavioral and psychological aspects of the impact of the pandemic on the population. In particular, he looks at how you can gain the most traction as a government with the kind of policies and approaches that really will change people’s behavior in a beneficial way during the pandemic. He has spoken out persistently both for and against actions the U.K. and the Scottish governments have been taking in terms of trying to get collective changes of behavior, and he has really shone a light on the value of psychology as a discipline, the importance of understanding the triggers that prompt beneficial and benign communal behavior. His interventions have been decisive, important and, on occasion, controversial, and we are proud of his contributions.

We have also had, for example, Professor David Crossman, who is the Chief Scientist for Health in the Scottish Government, who has played a huge role in clinical advice in terms of dealing with public health in Scotland. He has made a number of really significant interventions in that regard in terms of keeping people safe in Scotland. A fair number of our researchers, particularly our virologists, are also actively involved in some cases with spin-out companies in generating the kinds of drugs that can have a really beneficial effect in the prevention and the treatment of respiratory diseases. We have seen a huge growth of willingness to engage and fund these kinds of companies, which are going to be producing the second order drugs that will have such an important capacity to address some of the after effects of the coronavirus as it moves from being pandemic to endemic.


How is the university working to expand its international reach, to craft new partnerships and collaborations with its peers, and to develop additional student exchange programs? In that context, how important is the U.S. to the university?

The U.S. is extremely important for the university of St Andrews. Distinctive amongst U.K. universities is that we have been working extensively with partner universities, with high schools, and with alumni in the U.S. for the best part of 30 or 40 years. Pre-pandemic, I would routinely be there half a dozen times a year, and post-pandemic, I will be there again, to build significant partnership relationships. For example, we have solid relationships with the University of Emory in Atlanta, and with the University of William and Mary in Virginia. Those are founded on student exchanges, but they are also increasingly established from looking at the kind of research projects that we can undertake together, bearing in mind that research is often a globally resourced and organized undertaking.

Europe is equally important: when this university was started in 1413, it was founded on principles that looked organizationally to the universities of Paris and of Louvain as much as to Oxford and Cambridge. We have always been oriented to Europe because of Scotland’s very strong traditions of European engagement as much as we have been oriented to England. These connections, which have been there since our foundation, continue to be extremely important to us. We appreciate the challenges of this post-Brexit era, but we have a number of enablers to ride it out and to continue to build our European relationships. We are a member of the Europaeum group of European universities, which was founded out of Oxford and of which St Andrews is very proud to be a member. It is an organization of about 20 European universities that work closely together to improve the student experience and to offer, particularly graduate students, opportunities to experience the expertise that comes out of a range of different European universities. We also have a very strong partnership relationship with the University of Bonn, which is obviously one of Germany’s universities of excellence. That is at the level of the student experience, but also very much of strategic engagement, of research engagement, and foster the shared understanding between our universities of the nature of higher education, and the ways in which we can learn from Bonn and they can learn from us.

St Andrews is oriented to the developing world as well, and we feel a very strong element of social responsibility. Our university has done a lot of work across different parts of Africa. In particular, we have strong relationships in terms of student engagement with both Zambia and Malawi, which go back over a 15-to-20-year period. This has grown out of a persistent revisiting of these countries and joint working with NGOs and other institutions there. We build our relationships, we steward them, and we nurture them. For us, it is always about partnership, collegiality and, where possible, shared values.


How would you summarize your personal vision, priorities and main ambitions for the next few years? What do you have the most at heart to accomplish by 2026?

As I start my second term, I am doing quite a lot of reading about how people look at their second terms. There is a real temptation, which I am avoiding, to think as politicians do, which is to look at their first term as focused on domestic achievements and their second term as concentrating more on foreign policy. I think that is a mistake. When you lead an institution, and especially a global institution, you need to find the balance between always thinking hard about what is happening on the ground while operating on a global stage. You have to find the fine balance between those things, and that, for me, is a constant and major challenge.

I am very proud that we are an institution that is increasingly recognized for not only its world-leading ambition but also its diversity and inclusiveness and its commitment to social responsibility and sustainability. I want us to develop that. We also have a responsibility to define our digital identity and to make that our own and to make it distinctive. We also have to ensure that we secure the identity and the place of this university within St Andrews for the next 600 years. A huge milestone for us is that we recently acquired a major site right in the center of the town where we will be running a $140 million fundraising campaign to relocate our schools of international relations, which is one of the major subject areas of St Andrews—international relations, economics and management. We will be bringing these together as a major social science hub. This will be incredibly important to the prosperity of this university in the next century, but also to what we as a society, as a nation, and, indeed, as a world want to take forward. We have to get right what the post pandemic world looks like, and those disciplines will play an incredibly important part in that. Giving them prominence, proper accommodation and the capacity to work together is a major priority for us in the next part of my principalship.


Do you have any final comments for the readers of Newsweek magazine?

Higher education has an extraordinarily important part to play in the post-pandemic recovery. It offers hope for the future generations of students, hope for society and the world in terms of the fruits of the research, and a model for the way in which global institutions can function in a manner that is collegial, ambitious and inventive. In the post-pandemic world, we need institutions that are nationally situated but that transcend their nationalism with a focus on the greater good. That is what universities at their best offer and Scotland’s universities, in my opinion, do that better than anywhere else.