Scotland has been a popular student destination for hundreds of years. The country's oldest universities – St Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen – are truly ancient, dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. Many more institutions have since been founded and have grown in stature, before eventually achieving university status. The country now boasts 14 universities and almost a quarter of a million students: not bad for a nation with a population of just over five million.
The number of people choosing to study in Scotland is also growing rapidly. Higher education participation rates have doubled in the last 10 years, with more Scots than ever opting to continue in education after finishing their Highers. School leavers from other parts of the UK are also flocking there each year, attracted not only by the chance to study in some of Britain's most beautiful surroundings, but also by the way Scottish degrees are financed and structured.
By far the biggest expense faced by most students in the UK is tuition fees: those studying in England have to pay more than £3,000 per year, which often lands them with debts in excess of £10,000 after graduation. But if you already live in Scotland and choose to remain in the country for university, you won't have to pay any tuition fees at all.
This system has been in place since 2000, when Scotland's recently formed parliament decided to abolish fee-paying higher education. Their hope was that it would make university available to the greatest possible number of young people, and to ensure that more of the country's brightest minds would choose to remain at home. European Union regulations mean that this rule extends to students from EU countries outside the UK – but bizarrely not to those from England, Wales or Northern Ireland, who have to pay the going rate if they want to study in Scotland.
This year, the deal has got even sweeter. Previously, students who had enjoyed a free ride through university were asked to pay a "graduate endowment fee" after completing their degree, which went towards funding bursaries offered to less wealthy students. But in February of this year it was announced that this too was being abolished, saving Scots who choose to study in their home country the tidy sum of around £2,000 each. Scottish students from low-income backgrounds are still guaranteed a bursary to help them pay for other essentials such as food and accommodation, which they are not required to pay back.
But studying in Scotland doesn't just make financial sense for the locals: if you're from elsewhere in the UK and choose to make the trip north, you'll still be paying far less for your education than you would if you attended an English university. From the start of this academic year, non-Scots will have to pay just £1,775 per annum in tuition fees, compared to the £3,145 forked out by those studying south of the border. So even though a Scottish undergraduate degree lasts longer than most – for four years rather than three – it's still a lot cheaper.
The cost of living in Scotland is also slightly lower than the rest of the country, which is helpful when you're trying to make every penny count. Renting a shared student flat in Edinburgh or Glasgow will still put a dent in your finances though, and it is worth noting that competition for property is at a premium in St Andrews due to the small size of the town.
Undergraduate degrees gained at Scottish universities differ quite significantly from those offered at institutions in other parts of the UK, both in terms of structure and teaching. For a start, they take four years rather than three to complete. Although this means you'll spend a bit more of your life as a penniless student – and many would argue this is no bad thing – the format is more relaxed, giving you more time to explore different academic areas besides your own. And if you attend one of the four ancient institutions, you'll end up with a Masters degree under your belt, rather than the Bachelors qualification offered by most UK universities.
The main advantage of the four-year degree, however, lies in its flexibility. It allows room for two years of generalised education followed by two years of specialised study: this format is the one favoured in continental Europe, and also in the United States, where students try out a variety of different areas loosely connected to their own before finally choosing a "major". These first two years do not contribute to the overall degree result either, so students are encouraged to try subjects outside their comfort zone without the worry that a bad choice might affect their final grade. The hope is that this approach will give them knowledge of different disciplines and a more rounded education.
"It means that the system is much more flexible, and that the students can experience everything that's on offer," says Kirsty Rimmer, a spokesperson for Universities Scotland, the representative body for the country's higher education institutions. "This is great for people who have just left school at the age of 18, because they might not know exactly what they want to do yet. We've found that a lot of students are really attracted to the Scottish system for this reason."
If you decided to study politics at a Scottish university, for example, you would probably have the opportunity to take modules in economics and history for your first few years, before finally confirming politics as your major. This versatility can be very refreshing for students who were forced to narrow their options down to just three subjects at A-level. And if you do decide that your original choice of subject was the wrong one, the Scottish method also makes it a lot easier to change the main focus of your degree without having to start back at square one.
Scotland's often miserable weather might have given it a bad reputation, but the country has plenty of things to recommend it to prospective students. Both of the principal cities are visually stunning: if the dark rocky crags of Edinburgh Castle don't impress you, then Glasgow's refined squares and Georgian architecture surely will. Both are also cultural hubs with thriving art and music scenes, where the nightlife ranges from flashy modern nightclubs to snug pubs with coal fires and real ales.
Further north, the beauty of the countryside is likely to bewitch even the staunchest of urbanites, but it would be wrong to dismiss the rest of Scotland as purely rural. Aberdeen and Dundee are two significant cities which are often ignored by those unfamiliar with the country, but they are packed with history and have plenty to offer the modern student. In smaller towns such as St Andrews, students throw old-school house parties to make up for the shortage of nightclubs: the student lifestyle up here might not be typical, but it will be unique.
"What's attractive about Scotland is that it's such a mix between the urban and rural," says Rimmer. "The cities are accessible, easy to get around and have a lot of big attractions such as the Edinburgh festival."
HIGHER EDUCATION HOT SPOTS
By Andy Sharman
INVERNESS AND THE HIGHLANDS AND ISLANDS
Population: Inverness, 40,949 Highlands and Islands, approx. 250,000 (source: scrol.gov.uk)
Institutions: UHI Millennium InstituteWe say: Inverness is currently undergoing extensive development with shopping areas and a thriving cultural hub, the Ironworks live music venue. It's the only real city in the Highlands, and is the nominal centre of the sprawling UHI Millennium Institute. The Highlands and Islands offer stunning scenery in amazing rural locations. As with Inverness, culture is firmly based around traditional Gaelic heritage: real ale, real music and all-round good craic.
They say: "Yes, it is small-town living, but it's not necessarily quieter living. Life bases itself around music culture. It's about sessions – not drinking sessions, music sessions. We all go down to the local pub and everyone sings and plays together. We do the typical things you do as students, but with a Highland twist," says Liondsaidh NicMhichell, president, UHI Students' Association.
Institutions: University Of Aberdeen; The Robert Gordon University
We say: Like most of Scotland's ancient university towns, Aberdeen is a pleasant, student-friendly place to be – which is a good job, because the long, dark winters and Aberdeen's extreme location make it feel like tough love sometimes. The city has lots of clean, green spaces. Property can be on the expensive side, with prices starting to rival Edinburgh. But the cost of living is cheaper than in the capital, and there's loads going on, including a £13m visual arts centre due to open in 2010.
They say: "Students tend to come from outside the city, so it's really welcoming because everybody is in the same boat – there's no hardcore of locals you're trying to infiltrate. Old Aberdeen is really nice, with lots of cobbled streets. It's almost like a separate world, even though it's really close to the city centre," says Angela Fraser, president, Aberdeen University Students' Association.
Institutions: Dundee University; University Of Abertay Dundee
We say: You wouldn't think it if you've never been there, but Dundee has a thriving cultural quarter in the West End, full of arty bars and hot music venues. While places like Edinburgh feel a bit English, and St Andrews a bit American, Dundee is definitely Celtic, attracting Scots, Irish and particularly Northern Irish in droves. It's a good place to live as a student, as it's cheap. But that doesn't mean it's tacky, and the city is undergoing a large regeneration project centring around the river.
They say: "The best bit about Dundee is its size – it doesn't feel too huge, it just feels like a welcoming place. The West End has loads going on and Magdalen Green, down towards the riverside, is fantastic. People in Dundee are really warm. It's a smaller place but that has its benefits. It's very easy to meet people," says Dave MacLeod, incoming president of Dundee University Students' Association.
Institutions: University Of St Andrews
We say: Full of tourists and golfers, with rapidly rising property prices, no rail station (you need to go to Leuchars, which is 15 minutes outside town) and no nightclubs, St Andrews doesn't lend itself to a high quality of student life. But it's a long-time favourite with university-goers, and those who have visited know why. A town, rather than a city, St Andrews is beautifully perched by the North Sea, and is chock-full of character and history.
They say: "Everything is within walking distance, and there's a high density of pubs and an incredibly active student body. Although town-gown relations have been up and down in the last few years, there's never any public aggression. Every student has a point when they think it's too small – but they get over it," says Andrew Keenan, president, St Andrews Students' Association.
Institutions: University Of Stirling
We say: Scotland's smallest city sits slap bang in the centre of Scotland, where the highland and lowland meet. It is blessed with one of the most picturesque university campuses in the world: featuring 360 acres of woodland and lakes. The city itself has lots of history, pretty old streets, and a safe feel to it. Stirling (Andy Murray territory) is to become Scotland's centre for sporting excellence, and there are all kinds of outdoor sports – from rafting to kite-surfing – on offer.
They say: "Stirling is the perfect size to support a good nightlife – allowing for three nightclubs and dozens of pubs and bars. Unless you change pub on a regular basis you become familiar with the same few hundred faces. Stirling regularly comes in the top universities in national league tables for student experience," says Tom Spencer, president, Stirling University Students' Association.
Institutions: Glasgow University; Glasgow School Of Art; Glasgow Caledonian University; University Of Strathclyde
We say: Gritty, lively and, above all, Scottish, Glasgow is the hard-man's answer to twee Edinburgh. It might have one of the highest murder rates in Western Europe, and some of Scotland's most fearsome estates, but you'll be too busy having a good time to notice.
They say: "The nightlife is unbeatable – it genuinely is a 24-7 party. Sunshine isn't as rare as you'd think and the many parks across the city will fill up on a nice day – the atmosphere is phenomenal. Glasgow will pleasantly surprise you: and the people are the friendliest in the world. Shoppers flock from all over for the famous shopping we have to offer. A rich heritage and diverse culture result in a vibrant and welcoming city. There is so much to do: you'll miss it once you're gone," says Paddy Hastie, student president, Glasgow Caledonian University Students' Association.
Institutions: University Of Edinburgh; Napier University; Heriot-Watt University; Queen Margaret University; Edinburgh College Of Art
We say: Ah, Edinburgh. The truly lovely, posh and pretty alternative to the hedonism of Glasgow. Scotland's capital is shot through with history – the castle, in particular, giving the city its majestic feel – and culture, being home to the eponymous summer festival, and a thriving film festival. Plus, it's a favourite with touring bands, there's never a shortage of things going on. Living options – think high-ceilinged apartments – are unlike any other student town, though you'll pay for it.
They say: "Edinburgh is a fantastic place to live, and a fantastic place to be a student. Summers are divine, with hundreds of students strewn across the city's Meadows, revising in the sun. And our international reputation creates a vibrant international community," says Adam Ramsay, president, Edinburgh University Students' Association.