St Andrews has topped the best university rankings for the first time, as the exams chaos caused by Covid saw the dominance of Oxbridge finally end.
Over the near-three decade history of the Good University Guide, either Cambridge or Oxford has always claimed the top spot each year.
However, the two institutions were toppled following an academic year in which higher education faced unprecedented upheaval due to the pandemic, when campuses closed and lessons were shifted online.
It led to a dramatic drop in the levels of student satisfaction and measures for teaching quality, among the key metrics used to rank institutions.
St Andrews was one of the few universities that managed to broadly sustain student satisfaction rates despite the pandemic, as it flipped its small-class teaching model to online.
The annual National Student Survey, conducted between January and April, found satisfaction scores for other institutions had largely “fallen off a cliff”.
Students from Cambridge and Oxford have refused to take part in the survey since 2016, meaning ratings for this year took the last available data and applied a sector-average revision based on the overall decline in student satisfaction since they were last involved.
In terms of academic research, St Andrews scored highly in the most recent Research Excellence Framework, especially for its work with the University of Edinburgh on chemistry and physics.
It is also renowned for its marine research, pioneering medical work and the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence.
Alastair McCall, editor of The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide, said: “Never before has any university other than Cambridge and Oxford finished top of our, or any other, 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.”
St Andrews also came top in another of the measures used to determine the rankings, as it now admits the best-qualified students, according to the Universities and College Admissions Service tariff points its intake earned.
The university is likely to have benefited more than Oxbridge on this metric following the A-level grade inflation last summer, when students were awarded grades predicted by teachers.
Cambridge and Oxford, which traditionally offer more places than they have, in expectation that not everyone will meet their grades, instead found themselves facing a scramble to find space to accommodate a significantly larger intake.
The rankings showed that Cambridge fell from first to third place whilst Oxford retained second spot.
St Andrews enjoys ‘remarkable result’
Prof Sally Mapstone, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews, said: “Of course, we’ll enjoy this remarkable result and I expect there may be a little good-natured cross-border teasing amongst colleagues.
“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.”