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Edinburgh is the quirky capital city of Scotland. It is situated in the lowlands but it does not take long to get to the rolling hills and highest mountains of the UK. It is a historic city, famous for internationally renowned festivals, events, architecture, wildlife, museums, and more. It is the perfect mix of thriving city life, and vast, panoramic views of nature. For three years in a row, Edinburgh has been rated as the best student city in the UK, second only to London (QS World Rankings). Overall, it is ranked 18th best student city in the world (QS World Rankings). Those hoping to study in Edinburgh will not be surprised to find it is home to some of the UK’s best universities.

How do Edinburgh universities work?

Universities in Edinburgh run similarly to other UK universities. In almost all cases, students apply for university having pre-decided their degree subject. Universities accept students to a specific degree program. Subsequently, UK universities focus on depth rather than breadth of subjects. It is uncommon for students to have double majors or minors, or take classes outside their degree subject.

Most undergraduate degrees are three years long. However, each year is weighted differently, with first year often counting the least toward the final degree’s grade. This system means that many first years', or “freshers,” spend quite a bit of time enjoying Edinburgh’s night life! Students can also opt to study four year degrees, in which the third year is either done abroad or as a work placement, although these have to be applied for during their second year.

Masters programs are one year long and PhD's are between three and four years long. The universities themselves generally fund PhD’s, and Masters programs are either self-funded or funded through scholarships, which will differ between universities.

Studying and teaching culture

Universities in Edinburgh, like in the rest of the UK, are assessment based. Each module may only have one or two assessments, in the form of tests, presentations or essays. Because each assessment is worth a significant portion of the final grade, students spend a lot of time studying for each individual assessment. Students often study in either the university library or student union, and this time is known as “self managed learning” (SML). Even though students are only in class a few hours each week, they are expected to spend many more hours engaged in SML. Most modules will not offer any participation or attendance points. Assessments come in the form of either “formative” (not graded) or “summative” (graded). Students usually enroll in three or four modules per semester, depending on their subject.

Relationships with teachers (called “lecturers”) are variable and will depend on your university, subject, and in many cases the teachers themselves. It is best to air on the side of politeness, and refer to the lecturer as either “Mr./Ms.” or “Professor” unless they ask to be called by their first name. Module sessions are often divided into lectures (presentations delivered to a hall of often hundreds of students) and seminars (smaller and more interactive classes, often designed as “workshops”). Lecturers may offer “office hours” when students can go speak to them one on one.

Marking system

Universities in the UK operate on a different marking (grading) system to many countries, which may shock many international students when they get their first results! Most Edinburgh universities operate on the same system, with 70% considered excellent, 60-69% considered very good, 50-59% considered good, 40-49% considered satisfactory, and below 40% a fail.

The University of Edinburgh, however, differs from the usual grading system. It uses a system called the “Common Marking System” which has a 100 point marking scheme that corresponds to letters A1 through H.

International students may find that the UK culture around grades is more open, with students willingly asking for and sharing assessment or module grades with each other.

Teaching language

You can expect to be taught in English in Edinburgh. International students who don’t have English as a first language need to have passed a Secure English language test (SELT). Up to date English language requirements can be found on the UK Visas and Immigration website.

Edinburgh’s main universities

University of Edinburgh

University of Edinburgh is a large public university in the center of the city, not far from the Old Town and Arthur’s Seat. It is a top university in the UK, renowned for its research and ranked 19th in the world by QS World University Rankings. Its linguistics program is ranked 5th in the world (QS World University Rankings). Alumni include over 20 Nobel Prize winners, including recent honorary graduate Malala Yousafzai who won the Nobel Peace Prize, and many others.

The university offers both undergraduate and postgraduate study, with 72% of students studying undergraduate degrees. There is also a slight gender imbalance and 60% of students are women (QS World Rankings). The degree program at University of Edinburgh is quite unusual compared to other UK universities, as there is an emphasis on breadth of study during the first year. Students do not decide on a degree subject until their second year, meaning that the degree usually takes four years instead of the usual three. Eligible science or engineering students have the option of applying straight into year two for a three year degree. This course flexibility is not offered at many other UK universities!

With 30,000 students, University of Edinburgh is a large university, and has an international student population of nearly 30%. There are many options for international students. The Foundation Program and The Pathway Programs offer talented students, whose high school qualifications would generally not be accepted for direct entry to a degree, a route to enter the university. More information on specific programs and tuition fees is available here.

Heriot-Watt University

Heriot-Watt University is the other top ranked university in Edinburgh, ranked at 327th by QS World University Rankings. It is smaller than University of Edinburgh, at around 9,000 students, with around a third being international students! Its highest ranked subject is engineering at 101st (QS World University Rankings). Heriot-Watt University is located further out from the Edinburgh city center than other universities. This doesn’t mean that it is isolated though, as the campus is thriving in its own culture, with 380 acres of land and purpose-built facilities.

The university itself was originally built as a technical school, and this profession-focus has been retained as it is now most well-known for its high quality research. Heriot-Watt also prides itself on its international outlook, and has campuses worldwide including Dubai and Malaysia, and campuses in Edinburgh, Scottish Borders and Orkney within Scotland. Students can take advantage of the university’s internationalization by doing inter-campus transfers as part of the Go Global scheme, meaning students can spend a semester, year or longer at different campuses. Heriot-Watt also offers Erasmus for study abroad within the UK, or exchange for study abroad outside the UK.

Edinburgh Napier University

Edinburgh Napier University, although not ranked by QS World University Rankings, is still a unique university within Edinburgh. It has an industry focus, and over 95% of students are in further work or study within six months of graduation. The university’s mission statement includes finding innovative solutions to real world problems. It has three campuses across the city; the business school overlooks the city at Craiglockhart campus; Engineering computing and creative subjects are based at Merchiston campus which is situated in the city center; and the applied sciences, health and social care subjects are housed at Sighthill campus which is west of the city center and home to the sports facility. Napier University has over 4,000 international students, and more information on applying is available here.

Queen Margaret University

Queen Margaret University is another main university in Edinburgh which is not ranked by QS World University Rankings. They pride themselves particularly in their health & rehabilitation, creativity, culture, and sustainable business programs. The university’s mission is the serve the wider community and improve quality of life, and this is reflected in the focus on allied health professions programs. Although the university has existed since 1875, it was only granted a university title in 2007. Since this time, a purpose-built campus was built in 2007, located in the East of Edinburgh. The Queen Margaret University student population has around 25% international students who originate from over 70 countries! More information on international student study at Queen Margaret University is available here.

Exchange programs and scholarships

Different universities offer varying exchange programs and scholarships, so you should look at the university’s international student page.

If you are looking to study abroad for either a short course or one year, a common exchange program is Erasmus. You can find more information on Erasmus through your home university or the Erasmus website.

There are some Scotland-specific scholarships for international students, including the Saltire Scholarships. The British Council is also a good resource to see scholarships offered by various universities.

Student living in Edinburgh

In terms of accommodation in Edinburgh, students can opt to live either in private accommodation or halls. Living with housemates is the best way to meet people, make friends, and practice English if it isn’t your first language! Generally, UK students live in halls during their first year before moving out into private accommodation in the following years. However, most universities will offer postgraduate-specific or mature students halls.

“Halls” refers to University-owned flats, where flat-mates are assigned based on a personal interest form that you would fill out during an application. Halls usually include a private bedroom but shared bathroom, kitchen, and living area with other students. They can be either catered or self-catered. Halls often include a cleaner, and students do not pay any bills…This means that they are usually more expensive than if you were to rent accommodation privately, but it is often seen as a “rite of passage” to live in halls, particularly in the first year of University.

Students wanting to live in privately rented accommodation should look at their University website for a university approved landlord list. Other good online resources are: Unite Students, City Lets, and StuRents. You will have a certain level of independence in private accommodation. You most likely won’t live on campus and you will be responsible for paying bills, cleaning, and sometimes buying furniture. It is possible to rent with bills included, which can make the process easier.

There are certain neighbourhoods where students tend to live, that you might want to look for accommodation in:

Newington: many students from University of Edinburgh live in this neighborhood. It has a central location with lots of restaurants and bars frequented by students.

Bruntsfield: students from University of Edinburgh and Napier University tend to live here as it is a good location for both universities.

Tollcross: students from Napier University tend to live in this neighborhood due to its central location and close proximity to student clubs. It is a bit cheaper than the other centrally located neighborhoods.

Marchmont: this is a neighborhood close to the Meadows which is a beautiful park that students love, full of old Victorian houses. It is full of high quality accommodation and shops, and less of a party scene than other student neighborhoods. It can be expensive due to high demand.

Other neighborhoods include New Town, Haymarket and Morningside but these are not as student-focused due to the more expensive rent. Students tend to live in the south of Edinburgh!

Cost of living


Compared to other European countries, it can be very expensive to study in the UK. Edinburgh is one of the most expensive cities for international student tuition. In Edinburgh, the average university fee for international students is $35,000 (USD), according to QS World Rankings. International students generally pay higher tuition than UK citizens by a few thousand GBP.

However, it is possible for EU student tuition to be completely covered by Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS). SAAS funds first degrees for EU students who wish to study in Scotland. If you are an international student but from the EU, Edinburgh could actually be one of the cheapest cities in the UK for you to study in! Check on the SAAS website to apply and see if your degree is eligible. SAAS do not sponsor one year exchanges, only entire degrees. Due to the EU referendum, it is unsure if this will continue so it is always important to confirm tuition fees with your university first.


If you live in private accommodation or self-catered halls, you will need to cook for yourself. There are many food shops in the UK, but the most budget friendly stores are Aldi, Asda, Morrison’s, Sainsbury's and Tesco. Other, slightly more expensive, food shops include Co-op Food, Marks & Spencer, and Waitrose. If you live far from the city centre or shops, don’t worry because most stores offer home delivery for a surcharge. Many students find it useful to go in on grocery delivery together. You can also get an NUS Extra card from your University. NUS is the National Union of Students, and it offers many discounts, including at food shops, the cinema, transport, and more.


Edinburgh is a small city but it does have its own public transportation system, including a new tram system built in 2014.

Overall, the UK has great public transportation, but it can be expensive. Train travel is the best and easiest way to travel around the UK. Students, no matter your age, are all eligible for a 16-25 rail card, which gives 1/3 off fares.

Within the UK, you can also use National Express or Megabus for reasonably priced bus journeys. Both of these services also offer student discounts.

Entry conditions

If you are from an EEA country or Switzerland you currently do not need a visa to study in Scotland. If you meet the university’s basic requirements, such as A-level equivalents and a satisfactory English language level, then you will be permitted to study in the UK.

If you are from outside Switzerland or EEA you will need a visa to study in the UK. Getting a visa can be an expensive and lengthy process. You can apply for the visa starting three months prior to your course’s start date. However, the process is very lengthy and complex and you should plan to begin collecting paperwork prior to this date. If you need to, many countries offer expediting services for a surcharge.

The most common student visa is the Tier 4. This visa application requires an unconditional offer from your university, a confirmation of acceptance of studies (CAS) letter, a criminal background check from your home country and any country you have been a resident in, biometric information including photographs and fingerprints, and proof of existing savings, the amount of which is dependent on the length of study. If the course is classified as a “short course” ie. a language course or short period of research, then you may be eligible for the Short Course Visa, which is less expensive.

Visas’ cost will depend on the length of your course and other factors, but can range from £93 to £335. Since 2015 the UK has instituted an added healthcare surcharge which includes access to the UK’s National Healthcare System. This price will also depend on the length of your study. Student visas often allow students to work for up to 20 hours a week during term time with certain other working restrictions.

Before applying, you should confirm all legal specifics on the UK visa and immigration (UKVI) website. UK immigration processes are subject to short-notice change, especially with the recent referendum to exit the EU. It is important to check current requirements on the UKVI Compliance website.You can also check updated visa processing times.

Student night life

In Edinburgh, students socialise by going out clubbing or drinking at bars. In the UK, drinking is acceptable and the drinking culture is more intense than other places. You should be careful and not necessarily try to keep up with your UK counterparts!

Universities will host student union nights which will vary between universities but are usually very popular. Students tend to go out during the week rather than on the weekends, which may seem opposite to you coming from a different country! This is because often drink prices or entry costs are raised on the weekends. In Edinburgh, students frequent the Cowgate and Lothian Road for well-priced clubs and bars. Popular clubs include Sneaky Pete’s in Cowgate for indie music, Why Not? for a well priced student night, The Bongo Club for hip hop, and many, many more!

Nice places to visit

There is so much to do, see and eat in Edinburgh. This huge variety comes from the city’s gorgeous and wild natural surroundings as well as its internationally renowned status. Some fun things to do and see include…

Climb Arthur’s Seat: even though it’s the capitol city of Scotland, Edinburgh is also home to an ancient volcano! You can hike up the volcano, called Arthur’s Seat, for free and enjoy some fresh air, a respite from the city, and breathtaking views.

Walk the Royal Mile: at the heart of Edinburgh city is the Royal Mile, a stretch of shops, churches, parliaments, restaurants, pubs and more. It is the most visited street in Edinburgh.

Celebrate Hogamany and New Years: make sure you’re in Edinburgh over New Years so you can take part in the incredible “Hogamany” celebration! No city does New Years quite like Edinburgh. The city is completely taken over by the celebration, with torch lights, street parades, fireworks, concerts and more. The tradition dates back to the Vikings!

Go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival: another fantastic celebration in Edinburgh is the fringe festival, which attracts thousands of people from all over the world each summer. It is the world’s largest arts festival, and occurs in Edinburgh each August. You can apply to take part, go to workshops, and see upcoming theater, art, and music.

Eat at the Elephant House: whilst in Edinburgh you will need to get lunch at the Elephant House, which is where J.K. Rowling wrote large parts of Harry Potter! When you’re there, be sure to check out the bathrooms for all the graffiti!

Edinburgh is also only an hour’s train journey from Glasgow and a short train journey from the highlands and beautiful lochs. For more to do in Edinburgh, go here.

Content written by Sarah Bence

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