Going to university in Scotland

Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven - going to university in Scotland
How is going to university in Scotland different from in the rest of the UK? We answer your questions about free university tuition, length of courses and more.

Scottish school leavers are usually eligible for free university tuition, while those from England, Wales and Northern Ireland need to pay. Degrees in Scotland are typically a bit longer and more flexible than those in the rest of the UK, with students starting at a slightly younger age. There are some important factors to consider when choosing between Scottish universities, such as differences in accommodation costs, climate, university atmosphere and transport links.

We’ve put together answers to frequently asked questions about these aspects of going to university in Scotland:

  1. Fees
  2. The degree system
  3. Choosing a Scottish university
  4. What it’s like studying in Scotland if you come from elsewhere (first-person accounts from graduates).

University fees in Scotland

Students who live in Scotland can get free university tuition if they stay in Scotland to study. To be eligible, they need to have lived in Scotland for the three years before they applied to university. Students from the rest of the UK who study in Scotland need to pay tuition fees. Scottish students who study in the rest of the UK do have to pay tuition fees. Our article on university fees and funding has more detail on the costs.

Douglas Graham is studying Scots law at the University of Dundee. He comments: ‘I wanted to study in Scotland because then my tuition fees would be paid. Also, I had to be at a Scottish university in order to study Scots law.’ See below for more details about the different legal systems and degrees.

The Scottish degree system

The main difference between university study in Scotland and the rest of the UK is in degree length and structure.

How long is a degree in Scotland?

In Scotland, a typical undergraduate degree (that is, a degree for someone going to university for the first time) lasts four years, while in the rest of the UK it is three years. Of course, some degrees will last longer wherever you study – for example medicine and veterinary science.

Flexibility to explore multiple subjects

Scottish universities typically offer more flexibility than those elsewhere in the UK for students to explore different subjects. There’s also more flexibility to change course part-way through your degree if you change your mind about what interests you.

The structure of a typical four-year Scottish degree is:

  • First year – study up to three different subjects from within the same faculty (eg arts, social science or science) if you wish.
  • Second year – as first year, with the option to either continue with the same three subjects or drop one and take a first year module in a different subject instead.
  • Third year and fourth year – study just one subject. This could be one of the ones you tried out in first or second year, if you preferred it to your original choice.

How flexible are degrees elsewhere in the UK?

Students in the rest of the UK are generally expected to stick to the subject that they applied for. It can be possible to switch subject in your first term, if there’s a place available on the course you want. If you change your mind after that, you’ll usually need to start again from first year, either at that university or elsewhere.

However, it is possible to get some flexibility into a degree in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. For example you could apply for a joint honours degree (which allows you to study two subjects – you may be able to drop one if you don’t like it) or combined honours degree (which could allow you to study three subjects). Alternatively, some closely related courses at some universities have a common first year. For example, a biology department might teach the same first-year modules to all students, regardless of whether their course is cell biology, ecology or genetics, and allow them to change course at the end of first year.

Names of degrees – is a Scottish MA the same as an English BA?

Be aware that some older Scottish universities name the award you get at the end of your degree slightly differently to other UK universities.

  • Usually in the UK if you do a standard undergraduate degree you’ll be awarded a bachelors degree. This is indicated by the letter ‘B’ at the start of the name of the award – eg BA for bachelor of arts or BSc for bachelor of science.
  • You can then choose to do a higher level of degree known as a masters degree if you wish. You’ll see an ‘M’ at the start of the award, eg MA for master of arts and MSc for master of science. (In science and engineering subjects, there is also sometimes the option to do a longer undergraduate degree that leads to a masters-level award.)
  • However, older Scottish universities award the title MA (master of arts) to graduates of normal, standard-length undergraduate degrees in arts subjects. This doesn’t mean you’ll leave university with a higher level of qualification than friends on BSc or BA courses; you’ll just have a standard undergraduate degree with a different name. The reason is purely tradition. Universities that do so include Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, St Andrews and Aberdeen.

Law degrees – Scots law v. English and Welsh law

The legal system in Scotland is different from the legal system in England and Wales; the law degrees that relate to these are also different.

  • If you want to work as a lawyer in Scotland, by far the easiest route is to take a degree in Scots law.
  • If you want to work as a lawyer in England and Wales, the most direct route is to take a degree in English and Welsh law. However, graduates from any degree subject (including Scots law) can take a law conversion course, which typically last one year. This puts them on an equal footing with graduates whose degree is in English and Welsh law.
  • If you want to work to work as a lawyer in Northern Ireland, the most direct route is to take a ‘recognised law degree’ – English and Welsh law degrees are usually accepted whereas Scots law degrees aren’t. However, if your degree is in Scots law you can take a two-year masters degree in legal science at Queen’s University Belfast alongside graduates with degrees in non-law subjects before moving on to the next stage of the qualification process.

Only Scottish universities offer degrees in Scots law. However, some Scottish universities also offer degrees in English and Welsh law, or joint honours degrees that cover both legal systems.

How old will the other freshers be?

Typically students from Scotland are slightly younger on average when they start university than students from the rest of the UK, due to differences in the school systems. Quite a few Scottish students will still be 17 in freshers’ week, and might not turn 18 till February. A few may be 16, as it’s possible get a university place without doing the final school year, S6. Students from the rest of the UK will typically be at least 18 and some will be 19, even if they don’t take a gap year.

At Scottish universities, under-18s are still allowed to attend Student Union social events, but they might need to wear wristbands to show that they’re not allowed to drink. And your night out might take a bit more planning if you have a mixed group of over-18s and under-18s. However, in practice the age differences are unlikely to make much difference to your university experience wherever in the UK you study.

Choosing a uni in Scotland

There’s plenty to consider when choosing which Scottish universities to apply to.

Atmosphere at different Scottish universities

Different Scottish universities have different atmospheres, so explore which is right for you. University open days are a good way to do so.

If you’re moving to Scotland from elsewhere in the UK, it’s unlikely you’ll be the only one. Douglas Graham comments: ‘There are a large number of students from throughout the UK at all Scottish universities.’ However, this will vary a bit from university to university.

  • Being a student in Glasgow or Edinburgh will be a similar experience to being a student in a big English city such as Manchester.
  • St Andrews, like Oxford and Cambridge, has lots of traditions. It’s a small town that is relatively isolated transport-wise, which makes it very much a bubble. Some students like this and some don’t! However, it’s quite international with students from lots of different countries, including plenty from England.
  • The University of Edinburgh has a similar mix of students.
  • The University of Stirling has an attractive campus with a loch and castle, and is close to the countryside. Many of its students are from Scotland and Northern Ireland.
  • Newer universities, such as the University of the West of Scotland, attract a relatively high number of local students who choose to live at home and commute in each day.
  • The University of Glasgow also has plenty of students from the surrounding area, though it’s a big institution and also has lots of students from further afield.

Transport links to Scottish universities

Consider when looking at universities how easily and cheaply you would be able to get back home (or anywhere else you might want to go, such as a big city for a night out). For example, Aberdeen is quite far north but is on the main rail line to Edinburgh and London, and has its own airport. In contrast, St Andrews is further down the coast but a bit isolated – you’ll need to catch the bus from St Andrews to Leuchars, six miles away, then take a train towards Edinburgh or Aberdeen.

If you currently live in central or southern England or Wales, think about how often you’d want to go home (just for the vacations, or more frequently?) and if you’d have the money and motivation for the long journey required.

Cost of university accommodation in Scotland

The cost of accommodation for students in Scotland varies quite a bit depending on your town or city. For example, in 2018 the typical cost per calendar month of a room in a privately rented flat not too far from university was:

  • £350 in Dundee
  • £450 in Glasgow
  • £550 in Edinburgh.

Check prices as part of your research, and remember that you’ll probably need to rent privately for most of your degree, even if you live in university accommodation in first year.

What’s the weather like in different parts of Scotland?

Likewise, the weather will vary a bit depending on where you’re based. Broadly speaking, the west coast is wetter and milder and the east coast is colder, drier and windier. North of Dundee there will be a lot of snow; even Glasgow, Stirling and Edinburgh can have quite a bit.

If you’re heading up from the south of England you may find temperatures two or three degrees lower on average than you’re used to and some of the rain showers surprisingly heavy. Cold weather will impact on your utility bills once you’re no longer living in halls – and you may need to negotiate with housemates about whether to turn the heating up or just put on extra layers.

Moving to Scotland to study – graduate views

Hamish Blythe is founder and CEO of tech start-up Loop, a ride-sharing app. He studied in Scotland for a geology and petroleum geology degree.

Where did you grow up? Mainly England, but I have spent a large portion of my life in Scotland.

Why did you decide to do your degree in Scotland? The amazing mountains and beaches. The ability to be able to escape the city and find an adventure less than an hour away was brilliant.

What were the advantages? I saw parts of the UK (geographically and socially) that I would never have seen otherwise.

And the disadvantages? The lack of funding that Scottish universities have due to free education for Scottish students leaves the universities relatively poorly equipped compared to their English counterparts. We were lucky enough to have a new library and sports centre; however most other aspects were lacking. It would be have been nice to have better resources, especially for entrepreneurial students; we had very little support financially and in terms of advice.

Anything else? Be aware of the different laws in Scotland!

Paul Wilson is lead process specialist at Infineum, a science research company. He studied in Scotland for a chemistry PhD.

Where did you grow up? England.

Why did you decide to do your PhD in Scotland? It’s stunning. I went up to Edinburgh for my PhD interview, got off the train at Waverley Station, walked out onto Princes Street and thought wow! Then I went down West Mains Road, to the south of the city centre where the chemistry department is, with the Pentland Hills in the background. At that point you could have offered me a job sweeping the floor and I’d have said yes.

What were the advantages? Edinburgh is one of the few places I’ve lived that I’d go back and live. There’s so much to do there – beaches, wildlife, mountaineering, golf, fly fishing. I’d finish in the lab on Friday, put the tent in the back of the car, drive up to Skye or the Torridon Hills with friends and go climbing. I fished in rivers south of Edinburgh such as the Esk, or in the Tweed at Berwick-upon-Tweed. Once you’re outside Edinburgh, everywhere is wild and gorgeous – it’s lovely.

And the disadvantages? The only downside was that Edinburgh is a capital city, so it’s very expensive to live in. Edinburgh hasn’t got many flats, so competition for flats is huge. It was easier to get the PhD than to get a room in a flat!

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