When Edinburgh was at the forefront of Scottish Enlightenment, which saw education as a method of addressing the challenges of the industrial revolution, social reformer Leonard Horner came up with the idea of starting up evening classes at prices that working men could afford. After gaining financial support from Sir Walter Scott, Lord Cockburn and the Craig family of Riccarton, his dream came true in 1821, in the form of The Edinburgh School of Arts, which was the UK’s first Mechanics Institute.
Name changes followed in 1852 – the Watt Institution and School of Arts was in honour of James Watt, who invented the steam engine – and 1855 – the Heriot-Watt College was a nod to George Heriot, a philanthropist and financer to King James. Both men were viewed as pioneers, whose attributes are still referenced today. A final title alteration arrived in 1966, when Heriot-Watt University was established courtesy of a Royal Charter.
A full two decades prior to legislation that ensured Scottish universities allowed females to enrol, Mary Burton successfully campaigned to convince the Watt Institution to admit women. She became the first woman on the Board of Directors, and today one of the university’s buildings is named after her.
The early-to-mid 20th century saw the college focus on the requirements on industry and react as necessary. The Department of Mining was set up in 1913 following demand from the coal industry, while courses in Physical Chemistry, Fuel Science, Metallurgy, and Intermediates were added six years later. In 1934, the Department of Building was unveiled in an attempt to deliver tuition up to Associateship standard.
Management Studies joined the curriculum in 1950, and three years on there was a new Associateship programme in Civil Engineering.
Research has played a major role in the university’s identity. It became the first British education provider of its kind to arrive in Dubai International Academic city in 2005. Well-established links to industry and a reputation for first-class teaching and research saw it become the fastest-growing campus in the UAE, with more than 3,000 students. In 2014, the university invested £35 million in a Malaysia campus.
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Heriot-Watt University has a Silver rating in the UK Teaching Excellence Framework. It is placed 51st nationally in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, and 351-400 in the world. In a recent Research Excellence Framework, it was ranked first in Scotland for research impact, and in the top 25% of universities in the UK.
Amongst the Heriot-Watt alumni are Adam Crozier, ITV Chief Executive who held the same position with the Football Association at the start of the 21st century; Irvine Welsh, author of hit novel Trainspotting, which won global critical acclaim; and James Nasmyth, the inventor of the steam hammer.
They are in good company – ground-breaking photographer John Thomson attended the university, along with the likes of double Olympic gold medallist-turned-television presenter Shirley Robertson, Sarah Boyack, the former Minister for Transport in Scotland, Scotland rugby union star Lee Jones, and Deepak Tripathi, the historian and ex-journalist.