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The University of Aberdeen is the third oldest university in Scotland and the fifth oldest in the British Isles. Today it serves one of the most dynamic areas in the UK from its main Old College campus in Old Aberdeen, a mile to the north of the modern centre of the Granite City. Although its origins and location are ancient and many of the buildings are magnificent, the University continues to invest in new facilities as it progresses into its sixth century, including a new university library, a student centre and new high quality sports facilities.
Academically, the University of Aberdeen is highly regarded. Figures in the Guardian University Guide rank Aberdeen as the 23rd best university in the UK and the 153rd best in the world. The university is divided into three colleges: the College of Arts and Social Sciences, the College of Life Sciences and Medicine and the College of Physical Sciences. Each college is subdivided into a number of separate academic schools, plus research centres and institutes. In all, the university offers nearly 600 different first degree programmes and over 100 postgraduate-taught programmes.
First-year students are given priority for university accommodation. There are two main concentrations of halls of residence: on or around the Old College campus itself, and at the Hillhead Halls Of Residence site, a short distance away.
Students at the University of Aberdeen are represented within the University by the Aberdeen University Students' Association. The organisation helped establish "the Hub", a student dining and social centre on the main Old Aberdeen campus. This opened in 2006.
The story of the founding of the University of Aberdeen dates back to 1495 when William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen, wrote to Pope Alexander VI on behalf of King James IV asking for a university to be founded. The university grew up on a site close to St Machar's Cathedral, and at first was known St Mary's College.
The name rapidly changed to King's College and its aim became to train doctors, teachers and clergy who would be able to serve the communities of northern Scotland, as well as lawyers and administrators for the Scottish Crown. It initially started with 36 staff and students, and in 1497 established the first chair of medicine in the English-speaking world. In 1500, the first principal, Hector Boece, previously professor of philosophy at the University of Paris, was appointed.
In the aftermath of the Reformation of 1560, King's College, despite having been subjected to religious purges, remained a deeply conservative establishment. The result was the creation in 1593 of Marischal College as a second university in Aberdeen by George Keith, the 5th Earl Marischal. The result was that at the end of the 1500s, Aberdeen alone had as many universities as there were in the whole of England: and there were three more elsewhere in Scotland, the Universities of St Andrews, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Marischal College was established in what became the city centre of Aberdeen and the very different outlook and ethos of the two universities led to considerable rivalry between them, sometimes in the law courts, and at other times between their students in the taverns of Aberdeen.
The two universities merged into one on 15 September 1860. Following the merger, King's College initially focused on the arts and on divinity, while Marischal led the way in medicine. A new science facility was opened at Marischal in 1892, which was also the year the university opened its doors to women students. By 1899 nearly a quarter of the arts students at the university were women.
The modern University of Aberdeen has shifted the teaching of medicine towards the Foresterhill hospital site with the completion in 2002 of the Institute of Medical Sciences. Science and engineering have meanwhile moved to the King's College campus, which has increasingly become the main university campus. The magnificent Marischal College building in the city centre is now largely used by Aberdeen City Council. In 1999, the University launched its "Sixth Century Campaign" to mark the start of its sixth century of existence by raising £150m by 2010 to invest in new facilities.