Ancient universities of Scotland

The ancient universities of Scotland are medieval and renaissance universities which continue to exist in the present day. The majority of the ancient universities of the British Isles are located within Scotland, and have a number of distinctive features in common, being governed by a series of measures laid down in the Universities (Scotland) Acts 1858–1966. The Universities (Scotland) Act 1966 uses the term 'older universities' to refer to St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh.[1] The same act provided for the independence from St Andrews of Dundee, which was then granted a similar form of governance under its royal charter.

In common with the other ancient universities of the United Kingdom, the Scottish ancients find themselves administered in a quite different fashion from these new universities (of which there are now fifteen in Scotland) and are granted a number of privileges as a result of their different status.

Order of foundation

The currently existing ancient universities of Scotland are, in order of foundation:

Following the creation of the ancient universities before the end of the 16th century, no other universities were formed in Scotland until the twentieth century. The first 'new university' of the era was the University of Strathclyde which received its royal charter in 1964, although it traces its origins back to the Andersonian Institute (also known at various times as Anderson's College and Anderson's University) founded in 1796.[2][3][4][5]

Former and created universities and colleges

Marischal College, a former ancient university now part of the University of Aberdeen.

Despite being held as an ancient university, the University of Aberdeen was only created in 1860. The university was formed by the amalgamation of two existing ancient universities within Aberdeen, which were:

The two universities, generally known simply as King's College and Marischal College, were united into the modern University of Aberdeen by the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858. The Act of Parliament uniting the two universities specified that the date of the foundation of the new united university would be taken to be that of the older King's College, viz 1495. Another, short lived, university existed in the Aberdeenshire town of Fraserburgh from 1595 to 1605.[6][7]

All of the ancient universities, with the exception of St Andrews, were both simultaneously universities and colleges, with both titles being used.[8][9] The University of St Andrews was, however, a traditional collegiate university with a number of colleges. Today, only two statutory colleges exist: United College and the much smaller St Mary's College for students of theology – a third non-statutory college, St Leonard's College was founded in 1972 using the name of an earlier institution as a formal grouping of postgraduate students. Queen's College in Dundee (incorporated into the university from an earlier institution in 1897) became an independent university, the University of Dundee, in 1967.

In modern times, former college names may refer to specific university buildings, such as the King's College and Marischal College buildings in Aberdeen, the Old College and New College at Edinburgh and the 'Old College' to refer to the former buildings of the University of Glasgow before its move in the 19th century to Gilmorehill.[10]


St Andrews

St Salvator's Chapel, St Andrews

The University of St Andrews owed its origin to a society formed in 1410 by Laurence of Lindores, archdeacon Richard Cornwall, bishop William Stephenson and others. Bishop Henry Wardlaw (died 1440) issued a charter in 1411 and attracted the most learned men in Scotland as professors. In 1413 Avignon Pope Benedict XIII issued six bulls confirming the charter and constituting the society a university.

University College Dundee (founded in 1891) was absorbed into St Andrews University (1897), subsequently metamorphosing into Queen's College (1954). The University of Dundee separated from the University of St Andrews in 1967.

Today the University of St Andrews has just over 10,000 students and approximately 1,000 academic staff and is a member of the 1994 Group of British research universities. The independent IpsosMORI National Student Survey 2006 commissioned by HEFCE placed it third among the UK universities.[11] St Andrews reported the highest student satisfaction overall in Scotland for 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.[12] Nearly nine in ten graduates obtain a First Class or an Upper Second Class Honours degree. The university was ranked 3rd in the UK by the Guardian University Guide 2017 and 4th in the Times Good University Guide 2016. Entry to the University is highly competitive; the latest Times figures show that there are generally eight applications for every place available, and the University has not entered Clearing since 2003.


The Main Building of the University of Glasgow, from Kelvingrove Park
Main article: University of Glasgow

The University of Glasgow was founded in 1451 by a papal bull of Pope Nicholas V, at the request of King James II, giving Bishop William Turnbull permission to add the university to the city's cathedral.[13] Its founding came about as a result of King James II's wish that Scotland have two Universities, to equal Oxford and Cambridge of England.

Today Glasgow University now boasts almost 27,000 students with 40% coming from the West of Scotland and is a member of the Russell Group of leading British universities. Both the University's teaching quality and income from annual research contracts are assessed to be among the top 10 in the United Kingdom. The Times University ranking list places Glasgow among the best Scottish universities while the QS ranks it 2nd in Scotland.[14][15] There are currently almost eight applications for every place,[16] (194,000 applications from 2002 to 2007, with 37,700 in 2007 alone) making it one of the most competitive universities in the UK to obtain entry into.


King's College, Aberdeen

No college is mentioned in the foundation bill, only a university and it was the "University of Aberdeen" by that name which was established in 1495.

Subsequently a single college, originally known as St. Mary of the Nativity, was established (it was founded by William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen, who drafted a request on behalf of King James IV to Pope Alexander VI which resulted in a papal bull being issued). Soon the entity came to be called King's College, after its royal founder James IV.

A separate university (Marischal College) was founded in 1593. In 1860, King's merged with Marischal College. While both institutions were universities, and would be considered ancient, the Act of Parliament uniting the two specified that the date of the foundation of the new united university would be taken to be that of the older King's College.

Aberdeen was highly unusual at this time for having two universities in one city: as 20th-century University prospectuses observed, Aberdeen had the same number as existed in England at the time (the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge). In addition, a further university was set up to the north of Aberdeen in Fraserburgh from 1595, but was closed down about a decade later.

In 2015 Aberdeen University had 14,000 students and more than 3,000 staff.[17] A further institute that was established in 1750 under the wishes of Robert Gordon, a wealthy University of Aberdeen alumnus has since evolved into the modern Robert Gordon University.


The University of Edinburgh's Robert Adam-designed Old College, home of its Law School

The founding of the University is attributed to Bishop Robert Reid of St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney, who left the funds on his death in 1558 that ultimately provided the University's endowment. The University was established by a Royal Charter granted by James VI in 1582. As the first to be founded by Royal Charter at the urging of the "town council and burges of Edinburgh" some student groups at the other Scottish ancient universities deny Edinburgh is worthy of that title, usually stating the reasoning of "post reformation" however the Scottish Government considers it to be ancient.[18]

Edinburgh is highly competitive with 10 applications per place according to the latest Times data. Today Edinburgh University has over 30,000 students, more than any other in Scotland. In 2015 the QS World University Rankings ranked the University of Edinburgh 8th in Europe and 21st in the world.

Undergraduate Master of Arts degree

The ancient universities are distinctive in offering the Magister Artium/Master of Arts (M.A.) as an undergraduate academic degree. This is sometimes known as the Scottish MA, though it is offered by fewer than a third of Scotland's Universities.

Universities (Scotland) Acts

The Universities (Scotland) Acts created a distinctive system of governance for the ancient universities in Scotland, the process beginning with the 1858 Act and ending with the 1966 Act. Despite not being founded until after the first in these series of Acts, the University of Dundee shares all the features contained therein.

As a result of these Acts, each of these universities is governed by a tripartite system of General Council, University Court, and Academic Senate.

The chief executive and chief academic is the University Principal who also holds the title of Vice-Chancellor as an honorific. The Chancellor is a titular non-resident head to each university and is elected for life by the respective General Council, although in actuality a good number of Chancellors resign before the end of their "term of office".

Each also has a Students' Representative Council (SRC) as required by statute, although at the University of Aberdeen this has recently been renamed, the Students' Association Council (the Students' Association having been the parent body of the SRC).[19]


Scottish students represent about 48 per cent of the undergraduate population at the four ancient universities.[20] Over half of which have been educated at independent schools in Scotland (26 per cent of the total student body) when they make up just over 4 per cent of the total school age population in Scotland.[21]

For the 2016-17 admissions cycle, Ancient universities were criticised for the number of clearing places they had for Scottish students. Edinburgh offered 130 courses to rUK students, but only one to Scottish students. Similarly, Aberdeen only offered one course in clearing for Scottish students but 79 for rUK, Glasgow offered 5 and 497 courses respectively. St Andrews did not participate in clearing and offered no courses to either Scottish or rUK students.[22]

See also


  1. s.16
  2. "About Strathclyde: Our location and heritage: History". University of Strathclyde. Retrieved 12 October 2016.
  3. "The 'Andersonian' – The First Technical College". 11 October 2009. Retrieved 12 October 2016.
  9. "Slezer's Scotland". National Library of Scotland. Retrieved 12 October 2016.
  11. "Results by institution 2006 (part one)". The Guardian. London. Archived from the original on 12 January 2015.
  12. "Student satisfaction rate stalls at 82%, survey finds". BBC News. 18 August 2010.
  13. University of Glasgow – Who, Where and When, retrieved 22 April 2006
  14. Frean, Alexandra (18 June 2008). "Official the best universities in the UK". The Times. London. Retrieved 23 April 2010.
  16. "Good University Guide 2016". The Times. 20 September 2015.
  19. "University of Aberdeen Students' Association Constitution". Archived from the original on 8 April 2007. Retrieved 21 April 2007.
  20. Havergal, Chris (8 July 2016). "Winning a university place getting harder for Scots, report shows". Times Higher Education. Retrieved 8 July 2016.
  21. Johnson, Simon (27 May 2016). "Poor Scots 'squeezed out of university by SNP cap on places'". The Telegraph. Retrieved 7 July 2016.
  22. Johnson, Simon (20 August 2016). "SNP under attack over free tuition cap as number of Scots missing out on university place almost doubles". The Telegraph. Retrieved 23 August 2016.
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