Oxford University can claim to have a greater number of US students, with 1,280, but in terms of proportions of the student population, St Andrews wins hands down. A quarter of students are from outside the EU, with the majority hailing from the US and Canada.
It is surprising to find so many here “in the middle of nowhere,” says vice-principal Stephen Magee. There is no train station and no motorway leading to the auld grey toon, just a choice of A roads meandering through rural Fife. There is no McDonald’s and it is a “Kentucky-free zone”, says Magee.
With a population of just 14,000 in holiday time, the university’s 7,000 students dominate the town. The miles of beach, ivy-covered walls and bescarved, cycling students, make it look a bit like a film set for a 1950s college drama. There is no gritty underside to life here, and its safety, as well as the golf links, add to its mom-and-pop appeal.
As for the weather, to those used to harsh winters and fierce summers, St Andrews’ year-round pale sunshine and sea breezes can make a pleasant change.
“When they first come here, they ask, can we go to Edinburgh for the evening or London for the weekend? But they almost never do. The students here have a rich social life which they make for themselves, they cook dinner for each other and join clubs. It wouldn’t really suit the nightclub type.”
So far, the best-known US alumnus is Kay Redfield Jamison, eminent psychiatrist, manic depressive and writer, now an honorary professor, who in her memoir recalls boiling lobsters in Bunsen burners in the lab with fellow medics and eating them.
The university, which awarded an honorary degree to Benjamin Franklin in 1759, promotes itself heavily in US high schools as a cheaper alternative to the Ivy League. Currently it has five overseas applicants for every place.
Dr Michael Boyle, who arrived two years ago from Harvard, is one of eight North American lecturers in the school of international relations, teaching on American foreign policy, terrorism and political violence. “Initially I was surprised to find so many Americans here. About a third of my students are from the US. But it is more cosmopolitan than Harvard. This is a very welcoming, pro-American institution but not uncritically so.”
International relations students Michael Hendrix, 22, and Isabel Carty, 21, have “loved” studying at St Andrews. “I feel more part of a community here than I do in my home town,” says Carty.
President of the Denver alumni association, one of several in the US, Joshua Evenson, who studied economics last year and is about to become a senator’s intern, describes his time there as “unfathomably resplendent. It was and will remain the best time of my life. Being an avid golfer and having Scottish bloodlines, it was perfect. St Andrews is the place I grew and began to understand what really matters in life.”
· This article was amended on Tuesday May 20 2008. We referred to a Dr Mark Boyle, who is in fact Dr Michael Boyle. This has been corrected.
Tuesday May 20, 2008