Go Higher: Scotland and Northern Ireland - Become part of the renaissance

Many students in Scotland and Northern Ireland study from home, but newcomers are guaranteed a warm welcome
Of the thousands of new students who choose Scotland or Northern Ireland for their college or university course, many will be local to the region, if not the area itself. Scottish and Northern Irish universities have the highest proportion of students living at home in the UK, with Glasgow and Belfast heading the trend. For others arriving from different areas of the country, their preconceptions will be challenged on arrival in their new academic home.

Scotland, let's face it, is enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment. Scottish actors, bands, movies and companies are making a big impact all over the world. With the new Scottish Parliament recently opened, the country is at the forefront of 21st-century democracy. For students this means a great deal in itself.

The Lib-Lab coalition was formed despite conflict over the issue of tuition fees, a subject we've far from heard the last of, and which may still prove to be the first major stumbling block for the new MSPs in the Edinburgh Parliament.

At the same time, Northern Ireland has seen the greatest developments in its recent political history, with the Good Friday Agreement leading to a renewed feeling of optimism and, despite the recent difficulties, an opportunity for more progress.

One great advantage of Scotland or Northern Ireland as a study base is the opportunities for travel within and around these areas. Both have a huge array of landscapes, from the Highland peaks to the majestic north coast of Ireland. These areas, never more than a couple of hours by train from any university or college campus, provide a wealth of activities.

Skiing resorts are very popular in Scotland, with Glencoe, Aviemore, Glenshee and The Lecht the most popular, offering a variety of runs for everyone from beginner to professional level. There's also a plethora of ski and snowboard schools, equipment hire and a full range of apres- ski facilities. Buses also run from all major towns and cities for skiing and snowboarding day trips, many of which are run by student organisations and offer considerable discounts.

Another great favourite in Scotland and Northern Ireland is exploration of the country on foot. There are many well marked routes such as the West Highland, Southern Upland and Ulster Ways, plus a host of shorter and wilder routes across the countries. These walkways are popular with ramblers, climbers and mountain bikers and have a healthy number of hostels, pubs and campsites to serve those off the beaten track.

Of course the weather cannot be counted on, but getting wet shouldn't worry those interested in water sports. In the many Scottish and Ulster lochs, sailing, windsurfing, water-skiing and canoeing are all available, often with student discounts.

The towns and cities also have much to entice newcomers. Indeed, Northern Ireland and Scotland have a huge amount to offer in terms of art and culture. There are many huge festivals, such as the Edinburgh International and Fringe Festivals, The Belfast Festival, the T in The Park music festival and many smaller, but no less exciting events.

Visual arts are almost over-represented, with the new Museum of Modern Art and re-developing CCA and Tramway in Glasgow; Belfast's Ormeau Road Baths Gallery and Edinburgh's National Galleries being "must-visit" attractions. Theatre is very popular, even aside from the festivals, with Edinburgh's Traverse, Glasgow's Citizens and Tron, and Belfast's Lyric, the shining stars.

Music is taken very seriously too, with everything from jazz, through folk, dance, soul, Latin, pop and rock all as popular as ever, and there are a host of events to choose from in most cities every night.

Venues and clubs such as the 13th Note and the Sub Club in Glasgow; Aberdeen's Pelican Club; Belfast's Limelight; and Edinburgh's Venue and Cas Rock break new acts and boast a multitude of shows by larger names, all at less than the price you would expect to have to pay in London or Manchester.

Any sports fan should come to Scotland or Northern Ireland for higher education, especially those who follow football. Glasgow, home of the world's most famous football rivals, Rangers and Celtic, offers international matches in the newly refurbished Hampden Stadium, as well as a huge number of smaller clubs. Edinburgh's Hearts and Hibernian, Dundee FC and Dundee United, and Belfast's Glentorn and Cliftonville also offer the flying sparks of home grudges, while other teams, such as Aberdeen and St Mirren in Perth, commanding loyal support at home from locals and newcomers alike.

But aside from all the distractions from campus life in the northern British Isles, there is one other factor that makes visitors feel at home here instantly. Quite simply it is the people who live here. The people of Scotland and Northern Ireland are known as being among the most friendly in the UK. They welcome those from outside their borders, and students in these two regions are encouraged to become part of the overall community.

Of course, this benefits the two countries, as they develop their positions in Europe. The people of Northern Ireland and Scotland are coming together as never before.