Studying in Scotland: New kids on the block

Modern institutions offer niche courses and a bespoke service to rival the old guard, argues Liz Lightfoot

They may not have ancient buildings or hold a world class reputation for medieval history, but Scotland's modern universities are forging ahead to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

The former polytechnics have adapted to their university status, playing to their strengths and shaking off unflattering comparisons to their neighbours.

Closer links to the communities they serve have helped the modern universities to lead the drive to attract more students from poor and non-traditional backgrounds and they are exploring new ways of teaching and learning to boost retention rates.

They are also giving the ancients a run for their money as they build up an international standing in niche areas through bespoke courses which meet the needs of industry. Scotland's old universities may command the lion's share of funding from the research councils, but its new ones are capitalising on close links with manufacturing, commerce and the public sector.

The University of Abertay Dundee launched the UK's first undergraduate video games course, Robert Gordon is leading the fight against obesity and those hoping for a cheaper, sustainable fuel for their car should keep their eye on the school of life sciences at Napier.

The first Sinclair computers were made in Dundee, and Abertay has been gaining a reputation as the country's cyberspace university. Its graduates worked on Grand Theft Auto, the best-selling PlayStation game invented by Dave Jones's studio in Dundee and then on Crackdown, the Xbox game published last year by Realtime Worlds, his new company.

"Of our 200 staff I would say around 40 to 50 are Abertay graduates," says Colin Macdonald, the studio manager of Realtime Worlds. "Abertay works very closely with the industry and is right at the top of the many courses which have jumped on the bandwagon," he said.

Of around 90 university games courses in the UK, only four have so far been accredited by Skillset, the industry body, of which two are at Abertay. The third is at the University of the West of Scotland. Professor Lachlan MacKinnon, the head of Abertay's School of Computing and Creative Technologies, says one of his recent graduates is working for Electronic Arts on the new Harry Potter games. "It's a highly competitive industry and our graduates are very sought after," says MacKinnon.

As the new universities build to their strengths it is fitting that the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen should be a world leader in offshore engineering, sharing its expertise worldwide through Univation, the commercial arm which provides training programmes for energy companies from Venezuela to China. Its engineering department has another claim to fame – Melissa Clare, who graduated with a BEng in mechanical and offshore engineering, went on to make history as the first woman to take charge of an oil rig.

The university has built up a reputation for its work on obesity, diet and nutrition. Professor Iain Broom who heads the world renowned Centre for Obesity Research, oversees Counterweight, an educational programme for nurses at 66 health practices which has formed the basis for research over the last eight years. Its findings have linked the obesity epidemic in the western world to cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

"It is the only evidence-based programme that shows you can manage obesity in primary care and produce significant and relevant reductions in cardiovascular and cancer risk," he says. Fewer than 2 per cent of Robert Gordon's graduates are still seeking employment six months after completing their courses, just 1 per cent more than at Oxford.

Today's students are keen to see a point to their learning and have their eyes fixed on a job at the end of their studies according to Glasgow Caledonian University which has just launched the new Caledonian Academy to develop innovative forms of learning and teaching. It wants to find new ways of educating students in the wider sense while at the same time giving them a better preparation for the world of work. The Caledonian business school is the largest in Scotland and is launching the first MA in the international film business in the autumn.

A £100m redevelopment programme at Napier University in Edinburgh is helping to attract more students from abroad – around 17 per cent of full-time undergraduates are from overseas – plus academics of international standing.

Among them is Dr Martin Tangney, the director of the new Biofuel Research Centre, and a world expert on butanol, a chemical that can be produced from biological sources for use as a biofuel. Tangney's expertise had fallen out of fashion in industry but now, with the search for sustainable fuels, he is one of the few scientists with experience of the process required for large scale industrial butanol production through biological fermentation.

"Large amounts of butanol can be generated from industrial waste products without the need for fuel production to compete with food or the land required for food," he says. "Biofuel is not new – people don't generally know that Rudolf Diesel's first engine ran on peanut oil and in the early 1900s the Ford model T4 cars were designed to run on ethanol."

Heriot-Watt has long been known for its degree in brewing and distilling which remains a specialism, but in recent years it has become equally associated with mathematics. The university in Edinburgh is a source of some of the most highly paid actuaries in the country. Its centre for actuarial maths and statistics is one of only two in the UK and with a top grade for research plus accreditation from the actuarial profession, its graduates are sought after by banks, insurance companies and consulting firms.

Scotland's new universities have as much to offer as the old ones but the distinction could take a while to fade. South of the border it was more than 50 years before the cheeky new universities in industrial cities such as Manchester and Birmingham lost the perceived second class status of their more practical courses and the stigma of being built in red brick instead of the mellow stone of the ancients.

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