The beauty of Scotland is the four-year degree

The quality and quantity of Scottish courses is first-class, says Sarah Jewell

In Scotland, universities do things differently. With its long history of academic excellence Scotland graduates a higher proportion of its population than any other European country and with 21 higher education institutions to choose from the opportunities are endless.

Scotland has an ancient tradition of learning and its four oldest universities date back to the 15th century. St Andrew's is the oldest university. Founded in 1411, it is renowned for its academic achievements; its students are admitted to one of three faculties Arts, Divinity or Science. Glasgow University is the second oldest university and has 106 departments teaching everything from accountancy and aquatic bioscience to Welsh and zoology. Glasgow is also very strong on medicine and trains almost half the new doctors in Scotland each year. Edinburgh University was the first civic Scottish university and has one of the broadest subject ranges in the UK. Its nine faculties offer a wide range of courses from traditional academic disciplines to hi-tech degrees. Aberdeen University, which was founded in 1495, is one of the most research-active universities in the UK and is also very strong on modern languages.

As well as ancient, Scotland has a fine selection of new universities that are particularly popular for the flexible and highly developed modular systems they offer which allow courses to be tailored to individual needs.

The new universities are also strong on more modern areas of study. For instance Glasgow Caledonian University, Queen Margaret University College and Robert Gordon University specialise in health-related courses such as physiotherapy, speech therapy, dietetics and occupational therapy.

At Glasgow Caledonian and at Stirling there is also the chance to study using the semester system. This system has been used abroad for many years and involves splitting the academic year into two halves. Each semester lasts approximately 15 weeks. Twelve of those weeks are spent being taught with lectures, seminars and tutorials and practical work and the final three weeks are used for exams. The first semester begins in September and runs to mid December and the second semester runs from February to the end of May. Students have to complete a number of modules within each semester.

As well as ancient and modern, Scotland offers the very latest in cutting edge communications technologies. The proposed University of the Highlands and Islands, now called the UHI Millennium Institute, is a federation of 13 FE colleges and two research institutes which offers higher education in the remotest parts of Scotland. There are 50 learning centres covering 500 miles across the Highlands from Campbeltown to the Shetland Isles, all linked by computer technology with video conferencing lectures and tutorials across the network. The UHI is dedicated to becoming the centre of excellence in Gaelic language and culture and is also very strong on archaeology in the Northern Isles.

An undergraduate honours degree in Scotland takes four years and offers much greater breadth and flexibility than most degree courses in England. Students typically join a faculty and in the first year are encouraged to take a variety of courses within their area of study. It is not until the second or third year that they are expected to specialise in the subject in which they wish to graduate.

There is a great deal of flexibility when it comes to changing courses and subjects. If you want to change your degree subject, like Prince William did, then you will not encounter any problems. As Irene Finlayson, director of the UCAS Scottish office, says: "Scotland is a small country but it offers everything, and its main distinction is the four-year honours which allows for such broad scope. A student might start off doing sociology but end up doing something completely different because of the way the degree is structured."

Scottish universities arevery strong on research. With just nine per cent of the UK population, Scotland has 12 per cent of the total UK funding council resources for research. It has the highest concentration of biotechnology provision in Europe and 18 per cent of all UK biotechnology-related PhDs are awarded in Scotland. Other Scottish research strengths include computer science, optoelectronics, and electrical and electronic engineering.

In the recent 2001 Research Assessment Exercise, the University of St Andrews was rated first in Scotland and 10th in the UK, confirming its reputation for high-quality research across the sciences as well as the arts. All 23 units submitted for assessment were rated within the top three categories and 72 per cent of the university's academic staff were placed in the prestigious 5/5* units, which means that a significant component of their research has to attain international excellence.

Edinburgh university scored highly in the 2001 RAE with nine departments being rated 5*, the highest accolade denoting international excellence in all areas of activity. This placed Edinburgh fifth in the UK for 5* ratings (after Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College and University College London). An additional 19 departments were rated 5. Among the 5* departments were informatics, which boasts the largest number of top-graded staff in the UK, and Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies.

Wherever your interests lie, now is the time to consider heading north and studying for your degree in one of Scotland's excellent universities.