Ancient universities of Scotland: Wikis


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The ancient universities of Scotland are medieval and renaissance universities which continue to exist until 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]

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 ten in Scotland) and are granted a number of privileges as a result of their status.


Order of foundation

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

Following the creation of the above, no other universities were formed in Scotland until the 20th century. The first 'new university' of the era (see: plate glass university) was the University of Strathclyde, chartered in 1964 but having existed in various forms as an academic institution since 1796. [2]



St Andrews

St Salvator's Chapel

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 off from the University of St Andrews in 1967.

Today St Andrew's University has around 8,500 students and just over 800 academic staff. The independent IpsosMORI National Student Survey 2006 commissioned by HEFCE placed it third among the UK universities.[3] Nearly eight in ten graduates obtain a First Class or an Upper Second Class Honours degree. Entry to the University is highly competitive; the latest UCAS figures show that there are generally twelve applications for every place available, and the University has not entered Clearing since 2003.


The Main Building of the University, from Kelvingrove Park

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.[4] 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 24,000 students with 40% coming from the West of Scotland. 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 third amongst Scottish universites after St. Andews and Edinburgh. [5] There are currently over eight applications for every one place, (194,000 applications 2002-2007. 37,700 in 2007 alone) making it one of the most competitive Universities in the UK to obtain entry.


Marischal College

No college is mentioned in the foundation bull, 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, which itself had been founded in 1593. 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.

It should be noted that Aberdeen was highly unusual at the time for having two universities in one city. As late-20th century University of Aberdeen prospectuses wryly observed, this was the same number as existed in all of England at the time.

Today Aberdeen University has almost 14,000 students and over 700 staff. Among its graduates is the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling.


The University of Edinburgh's Robert Adam-designed Old College building, 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"

Today Edinburgh University has over 25,000 students, more than any other in Scotland. In 2006 The Times Higher Education Supplement ranked the University of Edinburgh 5th in the UK, 5th in Europe and 23rd in the world [6].


The University of Dundee was established as an independent institution by Royal Charter in 1967, but has a long history going back well into the 19th century. For most of its existence, Dundee formed a fully incorporated college of the University of St Andrews, known as University College Dundee and Queen's College at various periods.

By virtue of its descent through St Andrews, Dundee shares all organisational features in common with the other ancient universities of Scotland, such as awarding the undergraduate MA degree and electing a Rector. Upon attaining its independence from St Andrews, Dundee also gained a number of significant schools from its parent university, including law, dentistry and the main medical school.

As a result, the University of Dundee is usually considered alongside the ancient universities, particularly those in a Scottish context.

In 2008 the University of Dundee had almost 18,000 students.[7]

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, despite being 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).[8]

See also



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