Student Life in Edinburgh: Which University?

Cover Title for Which University?

What are the different universities in Edinburgh and how do they compare in terms of reputation, societies, people and culture? I'll answer it all here.

University collage, Edinuburgh Uni, Heriot-Watt & Edinburgh Napier
Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt, Napier University

There are 3 official universities in Edinburgh, each catering for different kinds of students. As campus life becomes your world for the several years you are there, it is not only important to choose a university based on the course, but also based on the culture and lifestyle.

It is no different in Scotland than to the rest of the world that there are stereotypes associated with each university and people often judge you based on where you study. So deciding where you want to go is a big deal and you’ll need all the information you can get to help you.

That’s what this post is all about. I’ll go over some general topics and then discuss each university separately. You can jump to any part using the menu below:

SLANG WORDS → A ‘fresher’ is a first yer student. And it’s worth knowing universities and colleges are not called schools in the UK. Schools are where 5-18 year olds study (i.e. Primary School and High School). 

Workload & Grades

For a Bachelor’s degree, you will study for 4 years with the chance to study abroad in your 2nd or 3rd year.

In your first and second year you will have approximately 13 hrs of lectures and tutorials which aren’t all compulsory to attend. You can actually skip as many lectures as you like, as most professors put all the content onto the student online portal. As for tutorials you really need to get your ass up and go to these, as you can lose marks if you don’t! Since they are a much smaller group of 10-20 students your professor will definitely know if you aren’t there!

Your 3rd and 4th year timetable will be a little more intense but still leave you with enough time for your hobbies or a part-time job. However, be careful as it may seem like a lot free time at first, but take into consideration you are technically supposed to do 10 hours of independent study for every credit your course is worth. Putting that into perspective a full-time degree consists of several courses each academic year (approx 120 credits worth), that comes to 600 hours of study per semester. Which calculates to 6-7 hours as the recommended daily amount (leaving weekends free). 

GRADES → Each course will be graded every year which eventually is calculated altogether to give you your final award upon graduating. It is made up of assignments you are given throughout the year, a well as some exams in the Springtime.

You may find it surprising that 40% counts as a pass over here, so you can end up really lowering your standards without realising. I find the grading system in Scotland to be really lenient, your total average grade from all your subjects over 4 years is calculated to award you with:

  • First-class honours – typically 70% or higher 
  • Second-class honours, upper division – typically 60 – 69% 
  • Second-class honours, lower division – typically 50 – 59% 
  • Third-class honours – typically 40 – 49%

Societies & Sports

As a university student it is an absolute MUST that you join at least one sports club or society from the student union. It is such a great way to meet like-minded people and have a bigger friend circle who you will see every week. Not to mention the discounted trips and fantastic socials every year!

EVENTS → Almost all sports clubs and societies have a weekly night out which coordinates with the other clubs so allows you to meet even more people! You’ll also get discounted or free entry.

At the end of every year there is a Sports/Societies Award Event which is super fun to attend with your squad to see if your club won ‘Best Club of the Year’ among other awards.

SIGN UP → On your induction week there will be an event called ‘Freshers Fair‘ where all the societies and clubs each set up a stand with their presidents to try and get as many freshers as possible to sign-up. It’s a  great place to get freebies and see what the people are like who run the club you want to join.

Photo collage of University Fresher's Fair
Edinburgh Napier Fresher's Fair

The University of Edinburgh

The University of Edinburgh symbol and coat of arms carved into a stone wall.
The University of Edinburgh Coat of Arms

 I’ll begin with the most distinguished and well known University which is, of course, The University of Edinburgh. It is the 15th best university in the UK and number 30 in the World University Rankings (2020).

Considered as an ‘ancient’ university in Scotland, Edinburgh University is actually the 6th oldest university in the English-speaking world!

Famous historical figures such as Charles Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell and J.M Barrie studied here. They also tend to invite pretty notable people to make speeches at their graduation ceremonies.

Charles Darwin Portrait Painting
Charles Darwin
Alexander Grahan Bell in his senior years
Alexander Graham Bell
J.M Barrie Photography
J.M Barrie

Requirements

As you can imagine, Edinburgh is the hardest university to get accepted into, so you really need to be getting A’s at high school to have a chance here. They provide high quality courses across all subjects and are definitely a top pick if you fit the requirements. Find the subject your interested in here and if you qualify for a place.

Campuses & Location

Courtyard View of the Old College Campus at Edinburgh University
“The university’s Old College” by LWYang is licensed under CC BY 2.0

One of the best things about the University of Edinburgh is that you have the pleasure of studying in some really beautiful and historical buildings that have been used in many famous movies. There are 5 campuses across the city, so depending on your major you will be focussed in 1 or 2 of these areas. You won’t be travelling between multiple locations every day.

Front view of the New College Building of Edinburgh University
“New College on the Mound, Edinburgh” by Kim Traynor is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The Old College and New College have got to be the most incredible out of them all, as well as Teviot Row House which is the central student hub and home of the Student Union where you can meet up with friends from other campuses and even other universities for lunch or winding down.

Student Union

Player throwing a bludger in a game of Muggle Quidditch
“Muggle Quidditch” by BenHollandPhotography is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Edinburgh University Students' Association LogoThe EUSA (Edinburgh University Student Association) has literally every kind of society under the sun, from Ballroom Dancing, to Doctor Who, to Muggle Quidditchwhere they play Quidditch running around with brooms between their legs!

EUSA really have it all, however if they are somehow still missing your hobby then you are welcome to start your own society! See them all here.

As for the Sports clubs, being a well-known established university, Edinburgh have some reputable clubs. They offer great opportunities for competing and attending competitions and games against other distinguished universities across the UK. A few that are considered some of the best in the UK include Gliding, Polo, and Rowing. Check out the full catalogue of clubs & societies here.

Gliding plane with two pilots in blue sky
Gliding
Two polo players trying to hit ball
Polo
9 Men rowing in a racing canoe in the evening
Rowing

People & Culture

Posh male student outside campus adjusting his collar.Due to the University of Edinburgh having such a great reputation and basically being the equivalent of an ‘Ivy League’ school in America, there is a substantial portion of upper class and middle class kids with posh accents and parents with high-paying jobs. However they won’t always be the ones you expect as it is often the style to dress like a hipster or have ‘homeless-chic’ especially if they are taking a creative course like art, fashion or music.

Casual male student with sunglasses walking across bridge On the other hand, there are of course plenty of people from working class backgrounds who have simply done really well at school and who may well be ‘the first in their family to go to university’ kind of thing. Scottish natives don’t actually have to pay tuition fees at Scottish universities so the likelihood of meeting kids from more humble backgrounds is more likely here than, perhaps England where they still have to pay the fees.

Three friendly students enjoy the view of Edinburgh from the top of a hill.The number of international students enrolled sits at just under 20% at the moment, so you will certainly be able to meet people from all over the world. Realising the importance of networking as a university student can put you miles ahead of the game! This may not be on the top of your mind upon starting uni, but really is something you should put effort into. As they say,

“It’s not WHAT you know, it’s WHO you know!”

Especially attending such a prestigious university, this will really give you the upper hand in certain job/career situations you may come across in your future. Don’t hate the player, hate the game!

Heriot-Watt University

Heriot Watt University Sign and Coat of ArmsThe next best place to study, in terms of reputation, is Heriot-Watt University. It is ranked in 29th place in the UK (2021) and within the top 300 in the world.

They are specifically known for their engineering courses, particularly their Mechanical Engineering degree which is currently the best in Scotland and in the top ten in the UK!

Requirements

As a slightly less picky university for accepting students, you should be able to study here if you are at least getting some B’s at high school. As mentioned they are definitely a top-pick if you are interested in more technical subjects like engineering, however any course from here will certainly look good on your CV. See their course catalogue and entry requirements here.

Campuses & Location

Main glass entrance to Heriot Watt University campus
Heriott-Watt Campus, Edinburgh

Unlike the other universities, Heriot-Watt has only one campus which makes things a lot easier in figuring out where you need to be for which class.

The bad news is, it isn’t in the city centre so you will need to take the bus or train depending where you live. From the central train station it takes 38 minutes by bus, but this can be much less depending where in the city you decide to live.

The Loch and surrounding nature at Heriot Watt University Campus Edinburgh
Chris Eilbeck / The Loch, Heriot-Watt University / CC BY-SA 2.0

The good news is that it means everyone from all faculties are together, and you can travel to campus with your flatmates which is nice.

The site itself feels close to nature with a lovely garden, extensive green space and a large pond area that is nice to enjoy in Summer.

Student Union

The Heriot-Watt Student Association has plenty of fantastic sports clubs and societies you should absolutely get involved in. Their society catalogue includes things like Chess, African Caribbean, Magic and Investment. The list goes on, you can search for yourself here.

And as expected, they offer all the popular sports and more. Some more out-of-the-box one’s include; Equestrian, Gaelic footballand Ultimate Frisbee! See them all here.

Gaelic football players in action
"File:Aidan O'Mahony & Eoin Bradley.jpg" by Ciaran McGuiggan is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Jokcey and horse jumping over small jump
Equestrian
Two players jump to catch the frisbee in an Ultimate Frisbee game
Ultimate Frisbee

People & Culture

Male student with headphones studying on his laptop at the student hub.

Heriot-Watt students are seen as being studious, smart and modest. Especially if they chose to study engineering here over a place at Edinburgh University it shows they weren’t tempted by the more showy option and took the initiative to go for a place which is best for their studies. Female student with glasses

However specialising in such traditionally male-dominated subjects, their male to female ratio is pretty bad at 62:38. So don’t be surprised if you’re the only girl in your tutor group! Other key words I associate with Heriot-Watt are mature and sensible. Of course this is just me generalising as there are many exceptions.

Edinburgh Napier University

Edinburgh Napier University Sign

And now for where I actually studied; Edinburgh Napier University. Being a newer institution that actually used to be known as St Andrews College, it is not as well known as the other universities in the city. Ranking at 601st place in the World University Rankings it is of a much more humble background. Nevertheless Napier is still a great university to study at with great student facilities. 

Requirements

One thing about Edinburgh Napier is that it is much easier to get into than the other universities. So as long as you pass your exams and graduate from high school you should be considered for a place here. It is certainly a good back-up plan as they usually have places right up to the last month before term starts. 

As for their courses, they really reflect the modernity of the university as they are very computer, business, tech oriented. The practicality of their degrees have made for a great employability rate of around 95%. Check out the full catalogue here.

Campuses & Location

Merchiston Castle at Merchiston Campus, Edinburgh Napier University
“File:Merchiston Castle.jpg” by Stefan Schäfer, Lich is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Napier University has 3 campuses around the city which are all tolerable distance away from the city centre. And depending where you live, potentially only a short walk away from your flat.

One great facility at Merchiston Campus is the Jack Kilby Centre which is a giant study room with hundreds of computer facilities to use for your assignments and research.

Outside the Craiglockhart campus of edinburgh napier university featuring the modern sci-fi exterior design
Craiglockhart Campus, Edinburgh Napier University

The nicest campus, I’d say, is the Craiglockhart Campus as the architecture combines the old with the new fantastically. The main building has a classic old-fashioned exterior but with the cool, sci-fi style extension it makes for a really unique campus. The main lecture theatre is full of natural light and great views which are pretty uncommon traits for a lecture theatre.

Student Union

Similar to the other universities, Edinburgh Napier’s Student Association is not lacking in great clubs and societies to sign up for. A few notable ones include the Coffee, Pop Choir and Whiskey society (full list is here).

And for sports there is the Archery,Pole Fitness, and Surf club to name a few (see them all here). As mentioned before you can actually start your own club if they don’t have it already which is what my American flatmates did in first year with the ‘International Society’. Again, the best way to meet like-minded people!

group of people dong archery in garden
Archery
Women posing on pole
Pole Fitness
Man surfing
Surf
Four girl students sitting in the stands of an american football game in Autumn.
Freezing in the stands!

Another fun thing about varsity sports, in particular, is that Napier and Edinburgh University often compete against each other which is super fun to attend and support. I went to an American Football game once and the cheerleading club got involved too, it was great – Shame it was so bloody freezing!

People & Culture

Smiling girl student carrying her books and bag. People who study at Napier definitely vary the most out of all the universities. To try and generalise somewhat I could say most people are down-to-earth and open-minded, certainly not conceited like a lot of their Edinburgh Uni counterparts! I say this because there is somewhat of a clash between Napier and Edinburgh Uni students mainly due to the vast difference in their universities’ qualities. Safe to say that Edinburgh Uni students automatically feel superior when you tell them you study at Napier! It doesn’t affect the motivation and positive environment of the place, but this will certainly come up from time to time when hanging out with Edinburgh Uni people.

Other big things affecting the culture is how a third of the students are international! I really liked this, as the international students are less aware of being made to feel inferior and generally all really sophisticated, awesome people. Almost all my friends were from outside the UK in first year and it was one of the best years of my life!

For the more visual people, here’s a brief summary of the main points in an infographic:

Graphic showing the Pros & Cons of different student accommodation options in Edinburgh

At the end of the day, where you study is not the be all and end all of your life. It will surprise you how little employers care about where you studied and sometimes even what you studied, as long as you studied!

I hope that gives you a feel for the differences between Edinburgh Uni, Heriot-Watt and Napier. Have you had any experience with them at all? Leave a comment on anything I missed out or any other opinions.

And if you are serious about studying in Edinburgh read the whole Edinburgh student series here!

Have an awesome day!

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Hi! I'm Robyn, a Scottish girl who has been embracing and enjoying life abroad since 2014 through work, study and volunteering opportunities!

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