The castle, whisky and AI
A semester abroad at the University of Edinburgh
In winter semester 2003/2004 I was a visiting student at the University of Edinburgh (short: Edinburgh Uni). To be precise I stayed there from October to March (including) which spanned exactly two of three terms then (in 2004 the University of Edinburgh changed their term system to semesters, so the teaching period within one semester will be less than half a year now).
This report is intended to give an impression of which opportunities you have when doing your semester abroad in Edinburgh. In addition it should provide some orientation and useful hints for student life at the University of Edinburgh once you have decided to go there.
Going to Edinburgh
Unfortunately Edinburgh Uni has no exchange program with the Institute of Cognitive Science in Osnabrück. This means that every CogSci intending to do a semester abroad there has to apply as an independent visiting student (among a lot of other independent visiting students). The application form can be downloaded from the website of the international office which also has further information on the application procedure. The most important things you need for the application are:
If you have passed the application procedure you might want to physically go to Edinburgh (even if not - it is worth the trip). I see four major ways to get there, but I only took two of them. I didn't try to go by train and I do not have a car. The first time I went there I took a bus. There is a Eurolines bus going directly from Osnabrück to the UK. One might think that this is convenient, but, well, it's a bus and it takes about 24 hours. The price was ok (128 EUR return), but I still can not recommend to go by bus.
Flying is a real alternative even in terms of cost. You can fly with Lufthansa or British Airways from several airports in Germany, but normally these flights are utterly expensive. Fortunately there are low-cost airlines. During the summer and early autumn Germanwings offers cheap flights directly to Edinburgh from Cologne. With Germanwings it's good to book a flight as soon as possible as prices increase until the date of the flight. The other low-cost airline flying directly from Germany to Scotland is Ryanair. The problem with Ryanair is that the flights neither start from a prominent place nor go there. For Germany - Scotland this means that you have to fly from (Frankfurt) Hahn to (Glasgow) Prestwick. By now everyone in Germany should know that Hahn airport is not really near Frankfurt. The same is true for Prestwick and Glasgow. At least there is a good train connection from Prestwick to Glasgow and when I flew with Ryanair I got 50% discount on train tickets. All in all it's a two hour additional train travel from Prestwick to Edinburgh. Nevertheless the price is unbeatable: once I paid 33 EUR + 9 GBP train travel for a trip from Hahn to Edinburgh and back.
Edinburgh regularly tops the polls as Britain's best place to live.
Scottish Widows website
Do I have to say more? Ok, here are some general facts:
What is the first picture which comes into your mind when talking about Scottish people? Stingy bagpipers with skirts, or face-coloured, long-haired Goths with axes and skirts? Ok, let me tell you one thing: these are no skirts, these are kilts and yes, Scots tend to wear them. This tradition can be compared with the Bavarian tradition of wearing Lederhosen. In general I find that Scots are in some aspects very similar to Bavarians, for example how they preserve their traditions and the way they dance. As they are Nordic people they tend to drink more than they can take. Nonetheless they are very friendly and you can have a great time with them (but stay away from the guys who carry a knife with them when going out ;).
Unfortunately you probably won't meet too many Scots in Edinburgh. The city is full with a mix of tourists, international students and workers and of course English people.
Some might find it difficult to get a flat in Edinburgh, but especially for students at the beginning of the academic year there are a lot of offers. Be aware that landlords often will only let for the whole (academic) year. Newington and Marchmont are very popular with students, because they are near to the uni buildings in the city centre. You will find a lot of shared flats there.
The three main sources for flat offers are studentpad which is an online database especially made for students and partly run by the university, The Scotsman (click on classifieds->property) which is a daily newspaper with offers once or twice a week and The List which is a fortnightly lifestyle magazine for Edinburgh and Glasgow containing info about what to do in the evenings.
Edinburgh Uni does not guarantee places in university accommodation for independent visiting students, but I know people who got a room anyway. Thus it is worth applying. The left over rooms are given away to any student shortly before the start of the term. If you ask at the right time, the probability is high that you will get a place.
Edinburgh is not only one of the best places to live in Britain, but it is also one of the most expensive. One pound sterling is about 1.5 Euro. Sometimes I wondered in the supermarket whether the prices on the signs are the same as in Germany, but in Germany in Euro and in Edinburgh in pound.
It is the same with the rent: I paid 250 GBP per month for a room with about 10 square meters (my flat was very nice though). Most rents in shared flats will lie within 200 to 300 pounds plus bills (Nebenkosten). University accommodation is not much cheaper.
Wine is especially expensive, but sometimes you can get offers like 3 bottles for 10 pounds. This is the same when drinking in pubs and bars, most of the time it is quite expensive (e.g. 2.5 GBP for a pint of beer), but often you can find offers like 241 (two for one) which make life respectively beer cheaper.
The only things that would keep you away from going out every night in Edinburgh are "insufficient funds", bodily impairment (from the night before) or a bad conscience (because you should do some work). Otherwise the opportunities for arranging a nice evening and night are abundant.
First of all you can go in one of the many cosy pubs or bars and have one of the famous Scottish single malt whiskies. You can find everything between traditional pubs with live folk music and stylish cocktail bars. The only drawback with pubs and bars is that most of them close at one o'clock in the morning. Fortunately you can still go into a club by then. Interestingly the word "club" does not directly denote a venue, but rather the event at a venue, e.g. Evol is a club happening in the Liquid Room on Fridays. Clubs are open until 3am. This is a hard bound in Scotland, i.e. you won't find a place selling you alcohol after three (but maybe at 05:30, if you know what to do two and a half hours without alcohol).
Having a decent drink is of course not the only thing one can do in Edinburgh. From classical concerts, over operas and musicals to cabarets and plays, you can have it all. For example when I was in Edinburgh the Scottish Chamber Orchestra had special student discounts which I used to see one of their best performances for not more than three pounds. Equally cheap namely free is entry to the national museum and the national gallery.
This is just a short note to express my bad experiences with British banks.
If you want to open a bank account, be aware that you need several things: photo identity (ID-card), proof that you are a student (e.g. letter of acceptance, but better university card) and most importantly a proof of your address. This can be several things, e.g. a bill addressed to you in your Edinburgh flat or an official letter from the university to you in your Edinburgh flat. As you can imagine it is somehow difficult to get this proof at the start of the term, because your flatmates pay the bills and all letters from uni were sent to your home address. Then you can go to the office of the Science and Engineering department to set up a proper letter addressed to your new flat in Edinburgh. It took me about four weeks to open that bank account (several complications) and then I could not do transfers, because when you stay only half a year, you do not get a proper currency account.
I say, if you do not really need a bank account there, do not open one - less trouble. By the way, you can withdraw money from your Deutsche Bank bank account for free from Barclays cash machines.
The UniversityEdinburgh has three universities: Heriot-Watt (ca. 9000 students), Napier (ca. 13000) and the University of Edinburgh (ca. 22000). As you can see Edinburgh Uni is the largest of them and it is the oldest, too. While the other two are situated more in the outer areas of Edinburgh, a large part of the University of Edinburgh is situated directly in or near the city centre. The rest of it, i.e. mostly the science and engineering department, is located a 10 minute bus ride away. Fortunately there is a free bus service operating between university buildings in the city centre and so-called "King's buildings".
Since I was a student at the School of Informatics and didn't use the opportunity to attend to courses of other schools, I can only comment on courses offered at the School of Informatics.
First of all: one important point in favour of being an independent visiting student at Edinburgh Uni is that you can choose among a huge variety of courses. For example in the School of Informatics I could have chosen all modules that I knew of including honours and Masters level ones. You can have a look at the whole list of several hundred courses across the entire university in the visiting students guide which also provides good information for all important concerns around the application procedure, university and life in Edinburgh.
Most courses which I have attended consisted of three contact hours per week (two one hour lectures + practical). This does not sound a lot compared to the six hours per week courses given at German universities, but be careful to not take too many of the modules in Edinburgh - four is the recommended number and with four modules you may be quite busy (depending on how serious you take the coursework and of course you wouldn't want to work for uni the whole time you are there).
The School of Informatics is huge and is therefore able to offer a great diversity of courses. When I was there the list contained more than fifty different modules ranging in topics from advanced databases over cognitive modelling and embedded software to learning from data and visualisation. Furthermore the school is very well equipped and I recommend to use as much of the resources not available at your home university as you can. For example in the course Introduction to Vision and Robotics it is possible to work with little robots in the practicals. For more detailed information about the courses and administrational things see the students homepage of the school.
Different countries most of the time also means different educational systems. This is true for Germany and the UK as well. Although in Germany great efforts are made to change the university system towards a European standard by introducing Bachelor and Master programs and ECTS credits, the details of a German Bachelor and a British one might well be very different.
Math is a prime example for this phenomenon. Whereas in Germany great store is set on abstract mathematics, in Britain they concentrate on applied math. This is also reflected in the structure of mathematics study programs - in Germany often the first lecture is already one about abstract linear algebra (fields, vector spaces and the like) and assignments regularly include proofs of abstract entities, in Britain they catch up with school maths (not only, of course) and solve more practical problems. Conversely, Edinburgh Uni offers a first year course about differential equations which is not done in Germany, because it needs more time to develop all the formal prerequisites in order to understand the problems of solving differential equations properly. One might argue about whether one of these approaches is better or not, but the important thing to remember is that maths, or any other subject, is not necessarily the same in other countries.
If you find an interesting sounding course, but you are not sure whether it might be too difficult or even too easy (the description could convey that you already know most of the things taught in the course), my advice is to simply listen to some of the first lectures, to discuss the content of the course with the lecturer and to decide afterwards whether you take the course or not.
The University of Edinburgh is one of the best universities in Europe and consequently has lots of excellent research. Instead of (or additionally to) taking courses you could try to get involved, for example by working on a students project. Good places to contact researchers are colloquia or weekly workshops like the one of the Institute for Adaptive and Neural Computation. Or you simply call them and ask whether you could meet some time to discuss their field of research.
Much more than in Germany students in Britain are seen as customers (well, actually students pay for their education there). Correspondingly service facilities are much better.
At Edinburgh Uni every student has a director of studies (DoS) who discusses study plans with the student and helps to select the right courses. For an independent visiting student the DoS is not that important, because he does not know your program of study, but he is the one who officially signs you up for courses at the start of the term. Another important institution in the School of Informatics is the informatics teaching office (ITO) - the administrational arm of teaching in the school. At the ITO course material can be collected and coursework can be handed in.
With questions of any kind (from antibiotics to zoo, or so) you can go to the advice place. If they can not answer the question they certainly know who could answer it. For example when you ask where you can get some information about student jobs you will probably be sent to the careers service. The careers service is definitely something which I miss at my German university. Besides advising you in all matters concerning the step from university to industry (acquiring soft skills, finding the right employer, applications) and helping to find a student job they maintain an interesting list of jobs which graduates of your study program do.
There are only two major drawbacks concerning the service. The first is the missing semesterticket which means that you have to pay for public transport (except for the university bus service to King's buildings) and the other is the matriculation procedure. This procedure is overly bureaucratic: you have to get some papers from your DoS, then you let somebody check these papers, then you pay tuition fees and then with the receipt from there you can get your university card. Fortunately all of the last stages happen on one day in one building (if everything works fine), but the worst is that you have to queue in front of that building for about two hours to get in. If you are clever you go in front of the queue and say that there must be something wrong with the amount of fees that you have to pay (be creative). When you are in, you have won - just follow the standard procedure. A problem might arise if you do not have a credit card, because they normally do not want that you transfer the money from abroad and they do not accept maestro cards (e.g. EC-cards). Hopefully the time will come when even Brits will recognise the advantages of money transfers.
The University of Edinburgh is not only good for academia, but it provides excellent recreation facilities, too. For about 50 pounds a one-year membership in the Centre for Sport and Exercise can be purchased. This entitles you to use squash courts and gyms which are very well equipped and to take part in courses offered by the centre. Additionally there are around fifty mainly student-run sports clubs organised under the sports union. This gives you the opportunity to do almost any sport that you could imagine including skydiving, weightlifting or curling as some examples. In contrast to Germany, sport is taken much more serious at British universities what already can be seen on the quantity and quality of the offers. Moreover there are much more competitions and for some disciplines there also exist Scotland wide university leagues.
After you exhausted yourself in one of the gyms you might want to have a cool drink. This can be purchased in one of the student unions (which are buildings here) like Potterow or Teviot. Within the week at lunch time the unions offer a lunch menu in the dining halls and at the weekends they often host parties like discos and dances. The unions are managed by the Students' Association which is a political organ and at the same time some kind of student-run company (in Germany at best comparable to Asta + Studentenwerk). Additionally the students association heads the many societies which hold the opportunity to meet likeminded people of any sort. For example there is a game soc or a choc soc (chocolate society) or a Russian society. Probably there is a society that is of some interest for you and if not, you could found a new one (as far as I know there has not been a German society ;).
I have enjoyed the time in Edinburgh. From my point of view Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. It is not too large, but still provides enough cultural sights such that you won't be able to explore everything in half a year.
The time at Edinburgh Uni was one of the most productive semesters I experienced so far. It is great to have the opportunity to choose among a really huge set of courses exactly those in which you are most interested. I definitely learned a lot.
If I had the chance to do it again, I would try to speak to more people about their field of research and in general would try to establish more personal contacts.
The only thing that put a damper on the joy was the expensiveness of living in Edinburgh. I needed over 700 Euro a month (plus tuition fees and travel expenses) and I certainly had no expensive life style. Nonetheless I conclude that it was very good value for money.
Sebastian Bitzer <sbitzer et uos.de>