The ancient university governance structure in Scotland is the organisational system imposed by a series of Acts of Parliament called the Universities (Scotland) Acts 1858 to 1966. The Acts applied to what were termed the 'older universities': the University of St Andrews, the University of Glasgow, the University of Aberdeen and the University of Edinburgh.[1] Together these four universities are commonly referred to as the ancient universities of Scotland.[2] Whilst the Acts do not directly apply to the University of Dundee (except insofar as section 13 of the Act of 1966 conferred a power to appoint, by Order in Council, the date for its independence from the University of St Andrews), the same governance structure was ordained for use by that institution in its royal charter.

The tripartite constitution

The ancient structure applies a tripartite relationship of bodies with authority over the university. These are the university court, the general council and the senatus academicus (rendered in English as the academic senate).

Senatus academicus

The senatus academicus is the supreme academic body of a university, presided over by the Principal.

The body will typically consist of the principal, any vice-principals, all professors, deans of faculties, heads of schools and colleges, elected representatives of non-professorial academic staff, elected student representatives, the university's chief librarian and any other significant persons specified in university ordinances.

In practice, the chief power of the senatus academicus is to elect a number of assessors to serve on the university court. The powers granted to the body are theoretically contained s.5 of the 1858 Act to "regulate the teaching and discipline of the University, and administer its property and revenues, subject to the control and review of the University court, as herein-after provided".

Often the full senatus rarely meets and under Section 5 has a quorum of one-third of its membership. The senatus often devolves some of its authority to a smaller academic council.

University court

Main article: University court

The university courts were first established for the ancient universities by the 1858 Act and are responsible for the finances and administration of each university.[3] Each university, subject to approval by the Privy Council, determines the constitution of its court, with members coming from within each university, the local community and beyond.

Changes to the statutes that govern the ancient universities are considered by the Scottish Universities Committee of the Privy Council; the Committee members include, provided that they are Privy Counsellors, the First Minister of Scotland, the Lord Justice General, the Lord Justice Clerk, the Lord Advocate, the Chancellors and Rectors of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and St Andrews, and one member of the Judicial Committee. The quorum is three, and in practice the Committee's work is undertaken by the First Minister, Lord Justice General and Lord Advocate through correspondence.[4]: Section 9 [5]

In the ancient universities, but not in Dundee,[6] the court is chaired by the rector. Members are also appointed by the general council, senatus academicus and some ex officio members drawn from the local authority. There will be a number of lay-members on the court, as well as representatives drawn from the students' representative council.

General council

Main article: General council (Scottish university)

The general council is a corporate body of all senior academics and graduates presided over by the chancellor of the university, an official which it elects for life. Members who are not also members of the senatus academicus are entitled to elect assessors to the university court.

Chiefly the general council is an advisory body, and exists to connect alumni with their alma mater. The general councils were also connected with the Scottish university constituencies of the Parliament of the United Kingdom until their abolition in 1950.


The officers of the ancient universities often predate the Universities (Scotland) Acts which give them statutory authority by centuries.

The Chancellor

The Chancellor is nominal head of the university. They are elected for life by the General Council by virtue of Section 2 of the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858. The Chancellor is given the statutory duty of awarding degrees, but may delegate this to a Vice-Chancellor and it has become convention for the Chancellor to appoint the Principal as Vice-Chancellor. The position of Vice-Chancellor does not confer any other powers or responsibility on the Principal.[7]

The involvement of university chancellors varies from institution to institution, in some always participating in academic ceremonies and in others almost never taking this position. The Chancellor is often a member of the Royal Family, a local dignitary, or noble or significant academic with some tie to the university or local area. As a consequence, the Chancellor's chief role is often to promote the university rather than involve themselves in the organisation of it. The Royal Commission on the Universities and Colleges of Scotland in 1826 defined the role thus:[8]

The Chancellor is head of the University. He is consulted on all public matters relative to its welfare, and he is also Conservator of its privileges. The power of conferring degrees is vested in him: this he may exercise either personally when present or by his depute when absent, with the advice of the doctors and masters of the University.

The Chancellor serves as President of the General Council once elected. They also appoint an Assessor to serve on the University Court. Prior to the episcopacy losing its authority in Scotland, the Chancellor was commonly the local bishop of the diocese within which the university was situated.[citation needed]

Current Chancellors

University Chancellor Date appointed
University of Aberdeen Queen Camilla 2013
University of Dundee George Robertson, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen 2023
University of Edinburgh Anne, Princess Royal 2011
University of Glasgow Dame Katherine Grainger 2020
University of St Andrews Menzies Campbell, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem 2006

Principal and vice chancellor

The Principal is the chief executive of the university, president of the Senatus Academicus, and is appointed by the University Court. The other senior officials of the university (usually with a specific portfolio of subject or over faculties or colleges) are often titled Vice Principals.

Given that the Principal is by custom appointed as Vice-Chancellor the full style of the Principal is 'Principal and Vice Chancellor'; as Vice-Chancellor the Principal can award degrees in the absence of the Chancellor.

Current principals

University Principals Date appointed
University of Aberdeen Professor George Boyne 2018
University of Dundee Professor Iain Gillespie 2021
University of Edinburgh Sir Peter Mathieson 2018
University of Glasgow Sir Anton Muscatelli 2009
University of St Andrews Dame Sally Mapstone 2016

The Rector

The office of Rector is one of the oldest institutions of university government, dating back to the original papal bulls which formed the earliest of the ancient universities in Scotland.[9] Originally, the Rector was effective head of the university, chosen as an academic from with it, but whose power was diluted by that of the Chancellor – the latter being the official representative of the Church.[10]

Following the Protestant reformation, the previous position became inevitably untenable. As such, the position of Rector evolved and has varied greatly in terms of power wielded throughout history. In recent times, the Lord Rector was given a statutory position by virtue of the 1889 Act to chair the University Court, although the Dundee rectorship is a notable exception, with the court instead appointing a lay member and the holder of the rectorship not being formally titled 'Lord Rector'. Gradually the responsibility of the Rector to his electorate ensured that he also functioned as a representative of students within the university, and an external promoter of the university. Rectors in the past century have often been well-known celebrities, politicians or political activists and may not have any personal link to the university beforehand.

Today, Rectors in these universities are elected for three year terms, enabling all students taking a typical four year undergraduate degree to vote at least once. The entire body of students is now typically considered together, in contrast to the old position whereby the Rector was elected by student 'nations' (usually four, divided by the county in which the students originated) within the university – a practice only discontinued in the Glasgow rectorship in 1977. The Edinburgh Rector is, uniquely, elected by both staff and students.

Typically, a Scottish university rector will work closely with the Students' Association and is usually commended to the Chancellor or Vice Chancellor by the President of the Association in order to be ceremonially installed. A rectorial installation is a major academic event often involving a number of traditions, most centrally a Rectorial Address - a speech made to the students and public.

Current rectors

The five current rectors are:[11][12]

University Rector Date appointed End of term
University of Aberdeen Martina Chukwuma-Ezike 2022 2025
University of Dundee Keith Harris 2021 2024
University of Edinburgh Simon Fanshawe 2024 2027
University of Glasgow Ghassan Abu-Sittah 2024 2027
University of St Andrews Stella Maris 2023 2026

Other Attributes

Students' representative councils

A students' representative council is a body usually, although not in the case of Glasgow, constituted within a Students' Association for the representation of student interests, particularly related to the academic administration of the university. There is a statutory obligation for the ancient governed universities to have an SRC.

Red undergraduate gowns

Undergraduate students of all the ancient governed universities in Scotland are entitled to wear the red undergraduate gown. Undergraduate members of Saint Mary's College, in the University of Saint Andrews wear a black gown with open sleeves and charged with a violet saltire cross on the left facing.

The Universities (Scotland) Acts

Universities (Scotland) Act 1853
Act of Parliament
Citation16 & 17 Vict. c. 89
Other legislation
Repealed byUniversities (Scotland) Act 1932
Status: Repealed
Universities (Scotland) Act 1858
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act to make Provision for the better Government and Discipline of the Universities of Scotland, and improving and regulating the Course of Study therein; and for the Union of the Two Universities and Colleges of Aberdeen.
Citation21 & 22 Vict. c. 83
Royal assent2 August 1858
Status: Amended
Text of the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858 as in force today (including any amendments) within the United Kingdom, from
Universities (Scotland) Act 1859
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act to remove Doubts as to Admission to the Office of Principal in the Universities of Scotland.
Citation22 & 23 Vict. c. 24
Royal assent13 August 1859
Other legislation
Repealed byUniversities (Scotland) Act 1932
Status: Repealed
Universities (Scotland) Act 1889
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act for the better Administration and Endowment of the Universities of Scotland.
Citation52 & 53 Vict. c. 55
Royal assent30 August 1889
Status: Amended
Text of the Universities (Scotland) Act 1889 as in force today (including any amendments) within the United Kingdom, from
Universities (Scotland) Act 1922
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act to extend the powers of the Courts of the Universities of Scotland in the making of Ordinances for the superannuation and pensioning of Principals and Professors, and for the admission of Lecturers and Readers to the Senatus Academicus, and to provide for the admission of Lecturers and Readers to membership of the General Councils of those Universities.
Citation12 & 13 Geo. 5. c. 31
Royal assent20 July 1922
Status: Amended
Text of the Universities (Scotland) Act 1922 as in force today (including any amendments) within the United Kingdom, from
Universities (Scotland) Act 1932
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act to transfer to the University Courts the right of presentation or appointment to certain chairs or professorships in the faculties of divinity or theology in the universities of Scotland; to remove restrictions as regards appointment to chairs or professorships in the said universities; to extend the powers of the University Courts of the said universities with regard to the making of ordinances, and for purposes connected therewith.
Citation22 & 23 Geo. 5. c. 26
Royal assent16 June 1932
Other legislation
  • Universities (Scotland) Act 1853
  • Universities (Scotland) Act 1859
Status: Amended
Text of the Universities (Scotland) Act 1932 as in force today (including any amendments) within the United Kingdom, from
Universities (Scotland) Act 1966
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act to amend the law relating to the Universities of St. Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh; to make provisions consequential on the foundation of a University of Dundee; and for purposes connected therewith.
Citation1966 c. 13
Royal assent10 March 1966
Other legislation
Repeals/revokesUniversity of St. Andrews Act 1953
Status: Amended
Text of the Universities (Scotland) Act 1966 as in force today (including any amendments) within the United Kingdom, from

The following are the Acts of the Parliament of the United Kingdom known as the Universities (Scotland) acts. These acts of Parliament formed the basis of the modern system of governance in the ancient universities of Scotland – with the same principles being incorporated into the University of Dundee's royal charter. The acts may be cited together as the Universities (Scotland) Acts 1858 to 1966.[13] Regulation of higher education is, since 1999, a devolved matter, within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament.

Other consequences

Aside from providing a constitution for university governance, the Universities (Scotland) Acts also had a number of other consequences for higher education in Scotland. The 1858 act laid the foundations for a merger between King's College, Aberdeen and Marischal College, also in Aberdeen,[3] to form the University of Aberdeen in 1860. The 1966 act pre-empted the creation of the University of Dundee from Queen's College of the University of St Andrews. The 1889 act created a Scottish Universities Committee within the Privy Council and made provisions to allow for the expansion of the Scottish universities. The 1932 act repealed the requirement for principals and professors to declare themselves as being of the Protestant faith, formerly a requirement of the Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Act 1707.


There are a number of anomalies to the general structures outlined above, although where notable they have attempted to be incorporated into the article itself:

University of Aberdeen

University of Dundee

University of Edinburgh

University of Glasgow


  1. ^ s.16, 1966 Act
  2. ^ "ANNEX F: Statutes". Report of the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland. Scottish Government. 2012. ISBN 978-1-78045-648-5. Archived from the original on 2 January 2019. Retrieved 1 January 2019.
  3. ^ a b "Universities of Scotland Bill". Glasgow Herald. 10 May 1858. p. 9. Retrieved 5 November 2016.
  4. ^ "Universities (Scotland) Act 1889",, The National Archives, 1889 c. 55
  5. ^ "Committees | Privy Council". Retrieved 30 April 2017.
  6. ^ Dundee is chaired by a lay member elected by the court
  7. ^ "Universities (Scotland) Act 1858",, The National Archives, 1858 c. 83
  8. ^ Scotland, Great Britain Commission for Visiting the Universities and Colleges of (1 January 1837). Evidence Taken and Received by the Commissioners - Presented to Both Houses of Parliament by Command of His Majesty: University of St. Andrews. W. Clowes and Sons. Retrieved 30 April 2017.
  9. ^ "Executive keeps its hands off rectorship". The Scotsman. 19 January 2004. Retrieved 15 October 2016.
  10. ^ "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Universities".
  11. ^ Current Rectors – Scottish Rectors' Group Archived July 16, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ "Rector of the University of Aberdeen". Retrieved 17 August 2018.
  13. ^ The Universities (Scotland) Act 1922, section 3; the Universities (Scotland) Act 1932, section 7(1); the Universities (Scotland) Act 1966, section 17(1).
  14. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 August 2011. Retrieved 20 September 2010.((cite web)): CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)