Inside the St Andrews success story: how Prince William’s university became the best in the land

There’s nothing like studying alongside a Duke for a memorable student experience – but there’s more to my alma mater than Royal approval

My alma mater, the University of St Andrews, found on a picturesque coastal stretch of east Fife, has always been my number one. But the ‘auld grey toon’ has now also been named top in a prominent university guide – bettering the Oxbridge duopoly for the first time in nearly 30 years of the award’s history.

In a stroke of incredible fortune almost exactly 20 years ago, my first tutorial group, led by the urbane Prof Brendan Cassidy, was composed of me, seven female students and a certain male Royal. We became pals; he played in my Sunday league football team (The Strokers), and I attended his 21st birthday party at Windsor Castle.

Granted, there’s nothing like studying alongside Prince William to make for a wildly enjoyable student experience, but St Andrews possesses an unparalleled allure and long history that help boost the “student satisfaction” rating as assessed by the judges.

Before the heir to the throne and his future wife enrolled, people thought of St Andrews primarily as the home of golf. And before that, almost a millennium ago, it was the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland with a magnificent cathedral and one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Europe. The big draw was that it was supposed to be the resting place of Andrew the Apostle’s bones, from which it takes its name. 

The town flourished thanks to pilgrim footfall. Scotland’s oldest university (and third in the English-speaking world behind Oxford and Cambridge) was founded in 1413, some 341 years before The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews was established. 

However, the complexion of the town was scarred following the violent Scottish Reformation in the mid-16th century. The Martyrs Memorial stands proud on the Scores, overlooking the sea – and close to where I lived in my final year. 

One wonders what those martyrs and Saint Andrew would have made of the confident young men, with pink trousers and upturned collars, and plummy-voiced, wannabe princesses I studied with in the early noughties. 

However, on the face of it, St Andrews is a bizarre choice for further education. Firstly, it is small – students make up around half of the town’s 18,390 population – and has just three main streets. Secondly, there is no nightclub, although arguably the annual Raisin Weekend, which culminates in a drunken foam party for freshers on the main quadrangle, makes up for that. Plus there’s always Dundee for dancing – just a 30-minute taxi ride away.

But there is so much to this tiny town, which is flanked by two long, sandy beaches – West Sands (where the opening shots of Chariots of Fire were filmed) and East Sands. With its world-class teaching and stunning surroundings, the university offers a powerful proposition, according to Lord Knight – former chief education adviser to Tes Global – who adds that its diminutive size can sometimes be part of its appeal. “Students like the human scale of a small university in a small place,” he says. “St Andrews is doing well by focusing on what counts: teaching quality and student satisfaction.

“Tuition is relatively well resourced in a great environment that makes for strong engagement and excellent outcomes. Fuse that with a rich history, international outlook and subject strengths in fields that are important to the economy, and you have a winning combination.”

Indeed, the latest rankings show St Andrews tops the charts in the UK for seven subjects: computer science, business management, English (for which straight As are now required), philosophy, physics and astronomy, Middle East and African studies, and international relations. 

That the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are alumni has raised its profile and made it a more desirable place to study and teach. And despite its storied history, the university’s progressive and proactive approach to supporting the wellbeing of students has impressed. For example, its Can Do initiative – a joint strategy between the university and the Students’ Association – was started primarily to reimagine, experiment with and contribute to the St Andrews student experience.

Set up in October 2020, it has provided “space for students and staff to have normal interactions and social activities” even during the pandemic, says Lottie Doherty, president of the St Andrews Students’ Association. A marquee was set up and they organised outdoor socials such as a pier walk. Where possible, in-person teaching has happened for the past year.

Lord Knight believes this bold and brave approach to engage students, which was a stark contrast to the prison-like experiences of students at many other universities in the last year, has been rightly applauded. “The student satisfaction ratings have strengthened during Covid against a backdrop of many young people nationally struggling with mental health, and students questioning the value for money of online tuition,” he continues.

Professor Sally Mapstone, principal and vice-chancellor of the university, is revelling in the news, understandably. “As one community, we constantly strive for excellence, and have a strategy that hasn’t been afraid to believe St Andrews could challenge at the very top by combining the best teaching, world-leading research, and an unswerving commitment to student satisfaction and achievement,” she says.

Whether or not St Andrews is better than studying at Oxbridge is a moot point. Echoing Dame Mary Beard’s comments that we would do well not to be “fixated” by Oxford and Cambridge, Lord Knight adds: “Culturally, our country is over-obsessed with Oxbridge. St Andrews is an example of the strength and depth we have elsewhere in research, in teaching and in delivering for students the experience they need to be successful adults.”

The auld grey toon will always win for me. It has provided a vibrant life and career, and I’m grateful to have studied there two decades ago – not least because I wouldn’t have had the grades to attend the UK’s new top university today.

This piece was originally published in The Telegraph in September 2021

Absolute beginners: startup tips for first-time founders

Starting a business is challenging enough even in normal times, but at least there is plenty of expert advice on offer for the UK’s new wave of novice entrepreneurs

Ironically, no one knows who invented the adage “necessity is the mother of invention”. This ancient proverb has rarely been more relevant in the business world, given the pandemic’s seismic impact on enterprises of all sizes.

The coronavirus crisis has caused widespread job losses and limited the career prospects of millions of people. This has led many to start their own enterprises. In the 12 months to March 2021, more than 810,000 businesses were incorporated in the UK, 22% up on the preceding year’s total, according to Companies House. In Q4 2020 alone, 221,000 companies were established – the highest quarterly figure in a decade. 

Britons have been running an entrepreneurial, startup culture for centuries – it’s what we do very well

Starting a business from scratch is no mean feat even when there isn’t a pandemic. Fortunately, several successful entrepreneurs, acknowledging the help they received when they started, are willing to share their insights with first-time founders. One such high-flyer is Markus Villig. 

As a secondary-school student in 2013, the Estonian had used a £4,300 loan from his parents and brother to start the business that would become pioneering transport company Bolt. Five years later, he became the youngest CEO of a European ‘unicorn’, a privately owned startup valued at $1bn. 

Give people what they need – even if they don’t know it yet

Villig’s original plan had been to provide a digital platform for cab users in his home city of Tallinn. The teenager hadn’t passed his driving test (he still doesn’t have a licence) and was frustrated by the capital’s disorganised taxi facilities. 

Today, Bolt is worth over £2bn and has 1.5 million drivers in 40 countries. But it wasn’t an immediate success, partly because Villig had trouble persuading people to adopt his pioneering technology. 

“There was a resistance from drivers to joining, as they didn’t understand how easy it was,” he recalls. “To combat this, I took to the streets myself, approaching drivers at taxi stands to pitch the idea and show them the simplicity of the technology and how it could benefit them.”

Villig stresses the importance of clear, concise communication in marketing, adding: “Don’t expect people to love your idea as much as you do from the get-go. I was faced with a tough market when I started Bolt, so I had to go out of my way to show that our common enemy was the private car. Once I began using this as my key message, we began getting taxi drivers on board.”

He continues: “It’s easy to overthink things. What I have found is that we humans like things to be simple. The simpler your business targets are, the better. At Bolt, we do our best to boil ours down to a few sentences.”

Start with a business plan to evaluate strengths and weaknesses

Erica Wolfe-Murray, the author of a guide for new entrepreneurs called Simple Tips, Smart Ideas, echoes Villig’s advice. 

“If you have a new idea for a product or service, don’t expect everyone to understand it automatically. They won’t,” she says. “If you’re thinking about launching a business, ask yourself: ‘Why now?’ If you can’t answer that, or your response is just flannel, rethink everything. I’ve seen so many startups that were little or no different from other companies. It saddens me, because they can take a huge amount of effort to launch yet will often fail quite quickly.”

Another common – and often fatal – error that new entrepreneurs commit is to make the pursuit of financial success their main reason for starting a business, Wolfe-Murray suggests. 

Don’t expect people to love your idea as much as you do from the get-go

“So many companies focus on their offering and the money before they focus on their unique experience, possible trends and different ways of approaching markets,” she says. “To start with, I always look at devising a business plan without involving money. The internal aspects of the company inform its strengths and weaknesses, while the external factors present opportunities and threats. This simple divide can often be overlooked, yet it is crucial to any business plan.”

Wolfe-Murray adds that the process of evaluating weaknesses and what outside help might be needed to address the latter requires a key entrepreneurial skill: resourcefulness. 

“Don’t underestimate the value of what and whom you know,” she explains. “You can analyse and harness these elements to launch an original, smart business in ways you may not have originally thought. Why copy others when your own assets give rise to a much richer offering?”

The financial hard yards – external help needed?

Wolfe-Murray warns that poor financial management is the “biggest pitfall” for new entrepreneurs. “It can take most companies up to three years before they get going, but that relies on regular customers and decent cash flow,” she says. “Yet founders take their eyes off the ball because there is so much else to do apart from looking after cash flow. I often ask founders who manages the money in their households. If it’s not them, they may not be used to doing the financial hard yards.”

Hannah Bernard, head of Barclays Business Banking, agrees. She would encourage any new entrepreneur to keep money from their business separate from the funds in their personal account. This will make it more straightforward to track the company’s cash flow and keep on top of supplier payments.

Ask yourself: ‘Why now?’ If you can’t answer this, or your response is just flannel, rethink everything

“This will help you to build up a business credit history, which could make it easier to access a loan – should you need it – as your venture starts growing,” she says, stressing the need to keep a scrupulous record of all revenues and expenses.

Bernard believes that most entrepreneurs will never be able to master every aspect of running a business, so they “should not be afraid to seek external help. A good place to start is online, where there are lots of free resources. The Barclays business hub, for instance, has tips on aspects ranging from writing a business plan to building a team.”

Wolfe-Murray offers a final word of encouragement to those pondering whether or not to start a new venture. “Britons have been running an entrepreneurial, startup culture for centuries – it’s what we do very well. Small companies are the bedrock of our economy. They enable inventive people to do things that intrigue and fulfil them,” she says. “If you have a hankering to start your own business, just do it.”

This article first appeared in Raconteur’s Supporting SMEs report, published in June 2021

Educating children for the jobs of the future

In an uncertain world, the only certainty is change, so young people should be taught how to adapt in a constantly changing working environment

By 2030, robots, artificial intelligence, automatons, call them what you like, will have displaced up to 800 million workers or one fifth of the global workforce, according to McKinsey Global Institute. The inexorable and exponential march of technology will create new jobs, experts assure us, but what are those roles likely to be and how should we prepare?

It’s important to equip young people with foundational skills that will stand them in good stead regardless of what jobs they end up taking on

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018, estimates that by 2022 “no less than 54 per cent of all employees will require significant reskilling and upskilling”. The report adds: “Human skills, such as creativity, originality and initiative, critical thinking, persuasion and negotiation will retain or increase their value, as will attention to detail, resilience, flexibility and complex problem-solving.”

What skills should we be teaching children in schools? 

How about in 2032, or 2042, and beyond? What tools should we be arming today’s children with so they stand a chance of surviving the world or work in one or two decades from now? “Many pedagogical experts argue that schools should switch to teaching ‘the four Cs’ – critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity,” Yuval Noah Harari writes in his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

In a chapter entitled Education: Change is the only constant, Professor Harari continues: “More broadly, schools should downplay technical skills and emphasise general-purpose life skills. Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, to learn new things and to preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations.”

Lord Jim Knight, chief education adviser at Tes Global, a network for educational professionals, strongly believes traditional curricula need to be overhauled in the UK. Moreover, young people should be allowed to play for as many years as possible because they will learn and develop skills that will be essential to flourish at work and home in the coming years.

“In Scandinavia, children attend school from the age of six and in many ways I think that is the sensible thing to do,” he says. “In Britain, we have a parental expectation for our children to be taught formal skills, such as reading and writing, earlier.”

Lord Knight contends that many secondary schools “are stuck in formal pedagogies” and must introduce more play-based learning, through projects. He asks: “Why wouldn’t we want kids to learn by building stuff, making things and being assessed by exhibiting work, rather than doing everything through formal desk-based exams?”

New schools teaching children to be ready for change 

Attitudes are changing, albeit slowly. Lord Knight welcomes the opening of two free schools, in Bournemouth and west London, that are the brainchild of Ian Livingstone, co-founder of Games Workshop and the inventor of Lara Croft of the video game franchise Tomb Raider. They offer “a groundbreaking curriculum relevant to the digital age,” according to the Livingston Academy’s website. Elsewhere, Gever Tulley’s Brightworks in San Francisco is a school that “reimagines education by taking the best practices from both early-childhood education and hands-on, project-based experiential learning”.

“We can’t know for sure what skills children will require for the future, but what we can be confident of is that change, and thus the need to adapt, will be an ongoing and increasingly important aspect,” says Peter Twining, professor of education futures at The Open University.

“Flexibility and resilience, and learning to learn will all be critical. Therefore, play – an important element of how humans, and other mammals, learn – is vital. Digital technology can be a powerful tool to support children’s learning if used appropriately, too.”

The amount of device screen time youngsters should be afforded for learning is hotly debated, however. “In Silicon Valley, there are boutique schools attended by the princes and princesses of tech giants that keep the children away from anything digital,” says Sir Nigel Shadbolt, co-founder and chairman of the Open Data Institute.

Tech and play could be the secret to equipping children for future jobs

Efforts have been made to gamify learning for digital natives in recent times, with varying degrees of success, but one standout triumph is Raspberry Pi Foundation, which has developed a series of small, single-board computers to promote teaching of basic computer science, as well as innovation in schools and developing countries.

Eben Upton, Raspberry Pi’s Cambridge University-educated chief executive, believes introducing children to tech, ideally through play, is critical to their future success. “You don’t make a concert pianist by sitting someone down at a piano at the age of 18,” he argues. “It’s important to reach children as early as possible, while their brains are still flexible.

“At school, the emphasis needs to be on foundational skills: numeracy, literacy and critical thinking. We advocate for computing education in part because it’s a great way for students to gain those foundational skills in an enjoyable, relevant way.

“It’s absolutely not about trying to guess which programming language is going to be required by employers in 20 years’ time and drilling children in that; cross-training to specific technology is down to employers and employees.

“It’s a truism that in the future workers will have to be prepared for roles to change radically over the course of a career. The days of a job for life, and of a single programme of education and training that fits you for that job, are gone. This is why it’s important to equip young people with foundational skills that will stand them in good stead regardless of what jobs they end up taking on.”

Learning through play

It is not just children who learn through play; adults do as well. In this period of seismic workforce transformation, wrought by technology’s unstoppable progression, retraining and mastering new skills will be imperative – and not just in the future, but now.

Indeed, data literacy is fast becoming a desirable facet for members of the C-suite and business leaders of the near future. “Half of the world’s data to ever exist was created in 2017 and only 0.8 per cent of it was analysed,” says Amanda Clack, head of strategic consulting at real estate group CBRE. “The potential is huge. We are only limited by our imagination.”

The Open Data Institute (ODI) has created an educational strategy board game to help people, old and young, better understand data and open their minds to data-driven innovation. Datopolis is the brainchild of ODI chief executive Jeni Tennison and former ODI colleague Ellen Broad.

“We wanted to build a game about data and data infrastructure, and help people understand their roles in making the most of data,” Dr Tennison says. “Players need to work together in Datopolis – negotiate whether to open or close data – to achieve common and individual goals. In addition to learning about data, players are encouraged to collaborate and communicate – both essential skills for the future. It’s great fun, too.”

Dr Tennison spent 18 months fine-tuning the game with her team, which included the ODI’s ex-head of learning Simon Bullmore, before launching in 2016. Mr Bullmore has since founded a data literacy and digital marketing organisation, Mission Drive, and regularly uses Datopolis as a learning tool.

“Whether it’s travelling to work or analysing sales performance, we rely on data to get answers to complex problems and make better decisions,” he says. “To thrive in an increasingly data-driven world, leaders need to understand important concepts like data strategy and data infrastructure. But these concepts are abstract, difficult to grasp, let alone take action on.

Datopolis gives people the experience of creating economic, social and environmental value with data. Participants of all ages and all levels of experience tell us it has helped them understand data concepts they had previously had difficulty grasping, for example that data infrastructure is about the data itself, not the cables and computers that connect data together.”

Stressing how learning through play is effective for everyone, he concludes: “Research shows that, at any age, games do a better job of activating the cognitive functions that help us learn than standard approaches to training. This gets people engaged and ready to learn, which in itself is valuable, but for data literacy it’s essential, because getting value from data requires people to think and do things differently.”

This article was first published in Raconteur’s Future of Work report in December 2018

Invest in employee training before it’s too late

The nationwide lockdowns, enforced to limit the deadly dissemination of COVID-19, sparked explosions in digital transformation and home-working trends across the globe. Digital transformation, though, is not deployed once: it’s an ongoing strategic campaign.

Technology and people are the two drivers powering successful digital transformation. Yet myopic business leaders, bedazzled by tech, risk forgetting the latter. Investing in staff training is critical. Moreover, it’s a win-win situation.

“The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.” Henry Ford, the founder of the eponymous automotive giant and architect of the assembly line technique of mass production, died 73 years ago, but his words live on with matured meaning.

Encouraging employees to re-skill, or up-skill, emphasises a level of care and commitment towards them, at this time of acute vulnerability. If left unchecked, automation advancements and coronavirus’ long shadow are enough to disable anyone’s career. While investment in staff training boosts morale and, in turn, productivity, it also helps better future-proof an organisation and narrows the chasmal skills gap.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018 laid bare the need to learn new talents to thrive in tomorrow’s workplace. Analytical thinking and innovation will be most desired in the 2022 skills outlook; manual dexterity, endurance and precision will be the first shown the door.

Further, the researchers calculated that on average employees will require 101 days of retraining and upskilling from 2018 to 2022 as “emerging skills gaps – both among individual workers and among companies’ senior leadership – may significantly obstruct [organisations’] transformation management”.


“On the one hand, businesses must retain and retrain their workforce to keep up with as well as take advantage of a constant stream of innovations,” says Anthony Tattersall, head of EMEA at online learning platform Coursera, which has generated more than 25 million enrolments since mid-March – a 520 per cent rise from the same period last year. “On the other hand, individuals must keep pace with a constant stream of innovations that hybridise and alter jobs.”

Last year the Office for National Statistics predicted 1.5 million jobs in England are at “high risk of being automated in the future”. Mr Tattersall continues: “Many jobs will slip away, but increased productivity will mean that many more new jobs will replace them – across all industries. These jobs are at risk of going unfilled if we don’t adapt to a new way of thinking about education and learning new skills throughout a lifetime.”

There are manifold benefits of investing in employee training, states Mr Tattersall. Funded learning improves staff engagement and empowerment, and helps facilitate the transition to remote working. It also enhances the emotional wellbeing of employees. “The act of learning helps cope with stress,” he says, noting the average age of a learner on the Coursera enterprise platform globally is 29.

But with business leaders struggling to cope with the onslaught of disruption wrought by COVID-19, is enough being done to protect future careers?

D2L published research in June that showed almost three-quarters (74 per cent) of learning and development (L&D) professionals believe the rise of automation and artificial intelligence is having “a serious effect on their workforce”. While 59 per cent have subsequently evolved their L&D programmes, the same percentage of employees don’t believe these challenges can be met with the current offering.


“There is not only a mismatch between employees’ and L&D leaders’ views on the skills crisis,” says Alan Hiddleston, D2L’s director of corporate learning EMEA, “but it would seem that many organisations do not offer engaging learning opportunities that actively encourage personal development and ‘enable’ their workforce to continue to test themselves.

“To deliver effective L&D solutions, there needs to be greater collaboration among departments. Establishing a continuous learning culture is key.”

LinkedIn’s Leading with Learning report, also launched in June, presents a more positive conclusion. Some 76 per cent of L&D professionals in the United Kingdom say that more chief executives are now “actively championing the development of their workforce” since the COVID-19 outbreak – up from 28 per cent in a comparable study conducted in October.

“The coronavirus pandemic has forced many companies to pause hiring,” says Namrata Murlidhar, director at LinkedIn Learning, “and instead focus on helping their existing employees adapt to the ‘new normal’ and develop skills that will be crucial to future growth.”

So-called MOOCs (massive online course platforms) – including Mr Tattersall’s Coursera and Udemy – have stepped up. “The online learning world is now overflowing with courses on pretty much any topic from a professional or personal standpoint,” says Amanda Rosewarne, business psychologist and co-founder of the Professional Development Consortium, which accredits online courses. “Cost-effective online training is disrupting the world of education. Prior to COVID-19, it was estimated that the e-learning industry would be worth $325 billion by 2025. This is likely to have quadrupled since lockdown.”

Ms Rosewarne urges caution when selecting online courses, as many are scams, but says: “With barriers to entry being low, millions of people across the globe are beginning to share their knowledge with the world. The online learning boom shows that people are thirsty for knowledge.”


Martin Raymond, co-founder of strategic foresight consultancy The Future Laboratory, argues that learning was due a shakeup. “If you could time-port a university professor from the 19th century to today they would think few things have changed,” he says, referencing the youth of students and the hierarchical system. “Prior to COVID-19, this was changing, especially for those in their 50s and 60s, millennials and members of Generation Z.

“We understand that new skills, disciples, and insights are needed to accommodate this multifaceted life-journey we are on. And since universities are still trying to accommodate the single career path, many organisations – recognising that their employees will stay with them, our research shows, for 2.3 years maximum, unless there is a wider prize to be won – are becoming educators in their own right.”

Mr Raymond celebrates the surge of blended learning – “part digital, part remote, part face-to-face” – and traces the trend for lifelong learning back to 2008, and the global financial crash, “when jobs became more precarious”.

It’s a time Lord Jim Knight, chief education and external officer at Tes Global, well remembers. “I was employment minister in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, and was part of preventing the scarring effect on young people of long-term unemployment,” the 55-year old says. “Right now, we are in a deeper economic crisis than anything in my lifetime. I hope a similar focus can help this time, but individuals also have a responsibility.”

Can organisations survive if they fail to invest in their staff? “Frankly no, not in the longer term,” continues Lord Knight. “Technological change and globalisation are redefining work and the wider economy constantly. The only answer is more individual and corporate agility – that is only possible through a deep-rooted, lifelong-learning culture.”

Hackathons, brown bag sharing sessions, and “coffee roulette” on Slack have been embraced to improve the learning culture within Tes, and break down siloes, reveals Lord Knight. “Right now people need to feel active and valued, even when isolated,” he adds. “Investing in them through learning and in making it easier to work remotely is just non-negotiable.”

It’s imperative that business leaders heed these lessons, and invest in their employees.

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Digital Transformation report in June 2020