Studying in Scotland: A taste of old school charm

You can't argue with 500 years of history and tradition. Nick Jackson is sold on Scotland's ancient universities

Few can resist the charms of novelty, and students are no different. Snazzy new buildings, industry led programmes, and wacky course combinations can prove a real lure. So why are Scotland's ancient universities not getting in on the act? Well, put it this way: England has Oxford and Cambridge; Scotland has Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and St Andrews. After the University of Edinburgh was founded in the 16th century, it took 382 years before the next Scottish university came along (the University of Strathclyde in 1964).

All the ancients were set up in the 15th and 16th centuries, but each has a very different character. Aberdeen surrounded by grim granite, Edinburgh with the glory of the nation's capital, Glasgow in the buzz of the industrial Wild West, and St Andrews, the most typical university town of them all.

That, at least, is to list them alphabetically. Ordering them any other way is bound to cause controversy, as all four are in stiff competition. Until recently, Edinburgh could claim to be the most famous, but that changed when Prince William went to study history of art at St Andrews.

The universities have a habit of defying expectations. St Andrews' reputation as a retreat for English public school boys is belied by the fact that more than a third of the university's students come from overseas. And Glasgow University's standing took a boost this year, when it overtook Edinburgh in The Independent league tables to claim 16th place in the UK. If they are so different, what, if anything, holds them together?

"We offer an incredible student experience, based on our traditions of research and teaching, and therefore in learning," says Stephen Magee, vice principal for external relations at St Andrews. St Andrews is the oldest of the ancients, established in 1413, and now the nation's highest performer. Eighty per cent of undergraduates achieve a first or a 2:1.

Beyond results and league tables, Magee believes students get a deeper education at the ancient Scottish universities, compared to both the new universities and universities in England and Wales. Scottish degrees last four years and Magee says the first two years allow even more breadth than new universities.

"We offer a much more broadly based first and second year," says Magee. "You can change tack during your first two years, which we find beneficial, both in terms of the breadth of learning and in the subsequent depth."

The downside is that the ancients are more competitive than the new Scottish universities to get into. At St Andrews, for example, there are 10 applicants for each place.

According to students, it's well worth the hard work. "As I walk to university every morning, I'm astonished by one of the most beautiful cityscapes in the world," says Adam Ramsay, president of Edinburgh's student association. "The university is one of the best places to be a student."

"Not only do you get to study in fabulous surroundings," adds Gavin Lee, president of Glasgow's Students' Representative Council. "But there is definitely a status linked to degrees from Scotland's ancient universities."

How does that status transfer into the job market? Look at the statistics and you will find more graduates from the new universities in employment after six months than from the ancients. Although, as dons point out, it is not because graduates are unemployable, but more often because they have gone on to do further study. Look three to five years down the line, says Magee, and you find graduates in high level jobs in government and business.

In fact, most employers admit they prefer candidates from top name universities, in particular members of the Russell Group of universities, which includes Edinburgh and Glasgow. And even the least vocational degree can land you a plum job.

Lucy Corby graduated from St Andrews in 2006 with a degree in history of art. She now works at Coutts in Geneva as a trainee private banker. "In terms of the nitty gritty of the stock exchange my degree is not really relevant," she says. "But in the private banking world you need chemistry with people, and many clients are art collectors."

While many dons at the ancients are defiantly academic, some are coming round to government and business demands to include more transferable skills in their degrees. "I'm a great believer in people studying disciplines they're interested in," says Dominic Houlihan, vice principal for research and commercialisation at Aberdeen. "But there's a balance between what we do in terms of discipline and other training and skills." To help students develop those skills, Aberdeen is currently overhauling their curricula to make sure that graduates are ready for the workplace.

Ultimately, says Professor Houlihan, it comes down to whether or not you trust the university to prepare you for the outside world. The ancients have the experience. "Five hundred years," says Houlihan. "There are precious few things that have lasted that long. Whatever we're doing, we seem to have got things right."

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