The snow has cleared from the streets of St Andrews, the storm surges subsided, at least for the time being. Soon the university polo club will be saddling up on the West Sands at what has been called 'the Northern Oxford', with students who fail to get into that august seat of learning gravitating to Andrew Lang's 'auld grey toon'.
In the overcrowded library ground floor, students, many with American accents, inquire if anyone has met the Indian billionaire's daughter, a first-year student who is reportedly occupying a mansion with a maid, butler, three housekeepers, gardener, three footmen, private chef and a chauffeur? Other stories tell of students who have flown their horses across the Atlantic and have them in stables in the environs of St Andrews.
Claiming that the university attracts the offspring of the wealthy, particularly Americans, irritates the hierarchy, though statistics show that St Andrews has fewer working-class Scottish students than similar institutions in Scotland. There are still elderly alumni who remember, with shame, working-class Scottish female students being disparaged as 'wee Marys'.
The current annual fees for undergraduates from overseas range from £21,290 for arts and sciences, to £30,080 for medicine. For overseas postgraduates (taught): £17,600 to £20,980. On top of these hefty sums, students have to find maintenance money, including flights home at vacation times. However, it appears that a significant number have no difficulty meeting these expenses, judging by the quality of the houses and flats which they rent. That is what is causing controversy and anger in St Andrews, with accusations that the university authorities, past and present, have disregarded the comfort and convenience of citizens in the relentless expansion of student numbers.
Professor Richard Olver has resided in St Andrews since 1985. He represents the Confederation of St Andrews' Residents' Associations on the St Andrews Housing Group. Writing in the latest issue of The Saint, the St Andrews student newspaper, Professor Olver provides depressing statistics. 'In 1985 there were 3,500 students, today there are 9,000+ and an expectation that this will rise to 10,000 in the next 3-4 years.' He points out that over the past 20 years the total population of St Andrews has hovered around 17,000, but the resident population has declined from 12,000 to 7,600. The professor concludes that 'residents are now in a minority in the town'.
More depressing statistics: Between 1979 and 2012, the number of primary school-aged children halved, and in 2007 Langlands, the largest primary school in St Andrews, closed. The university has around 5,000 students in its halls of residence, so from the 9,000+ total, 4,000 require to arrange their own accommodation. They occupy two-bed flats, but the majority share 3-7 bed HMOs (houses in multiple occupation). There are 580 of these, and most (70%) are concentrated in the historic conservation area of St Andrews, where students account for 85% of the population. Professor Olver writes that in the historic centre, 'the resident population is now below that of the Middle Ages!' (His exclamation mark).
The professor points out: 'With few exceptions, the HMOs were once family homes and 160 of them were once council houses that entered the HMO market via the right to buy. There is an acute shortage in St Andrews, with a housing waiting list of 370 and 40 people designated homeless'. When council houses began to come on the market, individuals with cash began buying them up, with some persons acquiring several. These properties were then done up and let to students at, in some cases, exorbitant rents.
For over 30 years I have written articles and the texts of successful illustrated books, promoting St Andrews and the university's achievements, but now I view with alarm the university's failure to curtail student recruitment and to listen to the protests of the citizens. Professor Sally Mapstone, the current principal, has stated publicly that she did not wish student numbers to rise above 10,000. But considering the major problems that have been created already as a result of 9,000+, 10,000 will bring even greater problems.
In a shop I am told by an angry assistant that she has become a victim of student demand for accommodation, priced out of the flat she occupied in St Andrews, and forced to move down the coast, having to run a car on basic wages, a complaint that is repeated throughout St Andrews, which cannot any longer provide, at reasonable cost, a roof for a significant number of essential workers to service the town or start families there; a major factor in the decline of the population of St Andrews. Ironically, former council house purchases and other properties which have been made available to students, have priced those who teach them out of the town.
The university library was built in the mid-1970s for around 3,500 students. Because of the failure of previous university administrators to find the money, or authorise a fund-raising campaign, the library has not been expanded to accommodate at least a satisfactory proportion of the 9,000 student body. Special collections, containing manuscripts and books essential for scholars, has been moved half a mile away, to the North Haugh. Many books have been cleared to stores (including to Dundee), to create more and more student computer space. It is no longer possible to browse shelves of certain periodicals, one of the requirements and pleasures of a traditional library. A large number of library staff is due to be decanted to a facility at the former paper mill at Guardbridge which the university acquired and is developing. Those staff workstations in the library will be replaced by more student computer points.
One consequence of the lack of space in the university library and outlier libraries is that students are now using tables in the town's cafes as workstations, their laptops and books taking up tables with four seats, so that residents, some of them elderly, standing with trays, can no longer find space to enjoy what they have purchased.
Fife Council community and housing services committee have been forced to respond to citizen protests by launching a consultation on an overprovision policy, with options of 0% and 3% limits on the further conversion of homes to HMOs, but a preference of 0%. Both the university and student bodies are bound to oppose an implemented zero policy for new HMOs, with student numbers expected to rise to 10,000. The best solution is for the university to build even more halls of residence. But can they finance them, even with overseas students' fees?
Car parking is becoming more and more difficult to find in St Andrews, and students, nervous about riding on congested streets, cycle on pavements and down wynds, though there are signs prohibiting this. The students are entitled to an education and are not responsible for the high numbers of their presence in St Andrews. It is the accountants who have pushed for expansion of student numbers to secure the future of the University of St Andrews in a competitive market, since universities have become businesses, no longer seats of learning.
But Brexit, with its potential threat to overseas student recruitment and research grants for staff, may make 10,000 students an unattainable goal, and may even lead to reduction – of staff as well as student numbers.