Heriot-Watt was established as the School of Arts of Edinburgh by Scottish businessman Leonard Horner on 16 October 1821. Having been inspired by Anderson's College in Glasgow, Horner established the School to provide practical knowledge of science and technology to Edinburgh's working men. The institution was initially of modest size, giving lectures two nights a week in rented rooms and boasting a small library of around 500 technical works. It was also oversubscribed, with admissions soon closing despite the cost of 15 shillings for a year's access to lectures and the library.
The School was managed by a board of eighteen directors and primarily funded by sponsors from the middle and upper classes including Robert Stevenson and Walter Scott. It first became associated with the inventor and engineer James Watt in 1824, as a means of raising funds to secure permanent accommodation. Justifying the association, School Director Lord Cockburn said:
"[The building] shall be employed for the accommodation of the Edinburgh School of Arts; whereby the memory of Watt may forever be connected with the promotion, among a class of men to which he himself originally belonged, of those mechanical arts from which his own usefulness and glory arose. "
In 1837, the School of Arts moved to leased accommodation on Adam Square, which it was able to purchase in 1851 thanks to funds raised in Watt's name. In honour of the purchase, the School changed its name to the Watt Institution and School of Arts in 1852.
Heriot-Watt's time as the Watt Institution marked a transitional period for the organisation, as its curriculum broadened to include several subjects beyond mathematics and the physical sciences. While the School of Arts had catered almost exclusively to working-class artisans and technical workers, the Watt Institution admitted a large number of middle-class students, whom it attracted with new subjects in the sciences, social sciences and humanities. By 1885, the skilled working class were no longer the majority in an institution that had been created explicitly for them.
A shifting class make-up was not the only demographic change to affect the student body, as in 1869 women were permitted to attend lectures for the first time. This move put the Watt Institution some way ahead of Scottish universities, who were only permitted to allow women to graduate 20 years later following the Universities (Scotland) Act of 1889. The decision to admit women was made in large part owing to pressure from local campaigner Mary Burton, who later became the Institution's first female director in 1874.
In 1870, the Watt Institution was forced to move following the demolition of Adam Square. After a brief period on Roxburgh Place, it relocated to the newly constructed Chambers Street near where its former site had stood. The move caused the Institution severe financial difficulties, which were compounded by a combination of declining funds from subscribers and increased costs from its growing student body. In 1873, the Directors turned to George Heriot's Trust for support, and agreed to a merger of the Trust's endowment with the Institution's own. The proposed merger was provisional to changes in the structure of the Watt Institution, which would see the organisation become a technical college with representatives of the Trust in management positions. Accepting these changes, the Watt Institution officially became Heriot-Watt College in 1885, and was subsequently on far firmer financial ground.
The Watt Club was founded at the Watt Institution on 12 May 1854, and is today the oldest alumni organisation in the UK. Following the unveiling of a statue of James Watt outside the Institution, local jeweller J.E Vernon proposed that
"[a club should be formed] whose object would be to sup together on the anniversary of the birth of James Watt…and also to promote the interests of the School, by raising a fund each year to provide prizes."
Watt Club Medals are still awarded by the organisation each year to Heriot-Watt's most highly achieving students, while the Watt Club Prize is awarded by The Watt Club Council to recognise student initiative and enterprise.
After the establishment of Heriot-Watt as a technical college, the new management committee set about extending the institution's buildings and strengthening its academic reputation. In its new form the College was one of only three non-university institutions in the UK with the power to appoint professors, and the first of these was appointed in 1887. In 1902 the College became a central institution, while in 1904 it introduced awards for graduating students which were similar to university degrees.
Expansion meant that the College made increasing demands on George Heriot's Trust throughout the first part of the 20th century, which ultimately led to the independence of the two bodies in 1927. While the Trust continued to pay Heriot-Watt a fixed sum each year, from then on the College was responsible for managing its own financial affairs. Heriot-Watt continued to expand after becoming independent, opening a new extension in 1935.
Both World Wars impacted on the speed of the College's expansion. During World War I, student numbers dropped as young men joined the army, while teaching in engineering stalled as the department was used for the manufacture of shells and munitions. During World War II, student numbers dropped again and the electrical engineering department became involved in training the armed services in the use of radar.
After the College introduced a postgraduate award in 1951, it offered awards equivalent to university degrees and doctorates in all practical respects. Recognising this, in 1963 the Robbins Report recommended that it should be awarded university status. On 1 February 1966 the recommendation was enacted, as the institution officially became Heriot-Watt University.
While Heriot-Watt continued to expand in the centre of Edinburgh after attaining university status, the institution had grown big enough that relocation was felt to be desirable. In 1966 Midlothian County Council gifted the Riccarton estate north of Currie to the University and in 1969 work began on transforming the site into a future campus. The process of relocation to Riccarton continued until 1992, with teaching and facilities divided between the new campus and the city centre until this time.
The University continued to grow after completing its move to Riccarton, constructing additional student halls, a sports centre and a postgraduate centre on the site. The institution also expanded beyond Edinburgh, merging with the Scottish College of Textiles to create a campus in the Scottish Borders in 1998, opening a campus in Dubai in 2006 and a campus in Putrajaya, Malaysia, in 2012.
Heriot-Watt currently has five campuses, and also runs distance learning programmes through 50 approved learning partners to students around the world.
Heriot-Watt's main campus is located in Riccarton in South West Edinburgh on 380 acres of parkland. The campus consists of: Academic buildings, student residences, a postgraduate centre, shops, several library collections, childcare, healthcare, a chaplaincy, a variety of recreational and sports facilities, and a museum, as well as the Student Union's main premises. It is also home to the Edinburgh Conference Centre and Europe's oldest research park, which opened in 1971.
Heriot-Watt's Edinburgh Campus has 2,000 furnished rooms available for students.
Heriot-Watt's Scottish Borders Campus in Galashiels is home to the University's School of Textile and Design. The School began life in 1883 when the Galashiels Manufacturer's Corporation began running classes in practical courses for its workers. The institution gradually grew both in terms of student numbers and the number of courses it offered, and it ultimately became known as the Scottish College of Textiles in 1968. In 1998 the College merged with Heriot-Watt, leading to the creation of the School of Textiles and Design in its modern form.
The School is one of the few fashion schools in the world which offers a menswear course at bachelor's degree level, and the only school in Scotland to offer a fashion communication course. It was ranked 11th place in the UK for art and design in the 2013 Complete University Guide, produced a winner and five other finalists for the Scottish Fashion Awards Graduate of the Year in June 2012.
While the Scottish Borders Campus shares some facilities and administrative functions with Edinburgh, it is largely self-contained. As well as its own library, accommodation and catering facilities, it has its own branch of the Student Union which runs events on the site and is home to a collection of textile records and artefacts. A new £12m student village opened at the Campus in September 2012.
In addition to the School of Textiles and Design, Heriot-Watt's Borders Business Programme is also based at the Scottish Borders Campus. The entire campus is shared with Borders College, whose students make up the majority of those who study at the site.
Heriot-Watt' s Dubai Campus opened in 2005. It was the first British university to set up in Dubai International Academic City.
Offering a range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses similar to those found in Scotland, the Campus facilitates student exchanges between Britain and the Emirates. It has facilities including a library, catering, computer access and shops. An expanded campus opened in the city in November 2011, allowing double the number of students to study for a Heriot-Watt degree in the city.
Heriot-Watt University Malaysia’s purpose-built campus opened in Putrajaya in September 2014.
Heriot-Watt's campus in Stromness, Orkney, is home to the International Centre for Island Technology (ICIT), part of the University's Institute of Petroleum Engineering. The Campus provides education to a small number of postgraduate students and is host to eight members of research staff.
West London College is an independent higher education institution situated in the borough of Mayfair in central London. The College has offered Heriot-Watt University academic programmes as an Approved Learning Partner since 1993 and in 2012 became an Associate Campus of the University.
West London College students studying on Heriot-Watt University courses are awarded the same degrees as students studying at any other Heriot-Watt University campus. They are also entitled to graduate at the same ceremony in Edinburgh.
Heriot-Watt is divided into six schools and one institute that coordinate its teaching and research:The School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society, incorporating petroleum engineering and renewable energy technology, architectural engineering, civil & structural engineering, construction management & surveying, geography and urban studies;
The School of Engineering and Physical Sciences, incorporating chemical engineering, chemistry, electrical, electronic and computing engineering, mechanical engineering and physics;
The School of Social Sciences (formerly, School of Management and Languages), incorporating accountancy and finance, business management, economics and languages;
The School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences, incorporating actuarial mathematics and statistics, computer science and mathematics;
The School of Textiles and Design;
Edinburgh Business School, which offers postgraduate courses at MBA, MSc and DBA level;
From 1 August 2016, the former School of Life Sciences was merged with other schools, with programmes transferred to the School of Management and Languages, the School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society and the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences.
Heriot-Watt is known for the strong prospects of its students, with 80% in graduate-level jobs six months after leaving the institution.
It came 1st in Scotland and 4th in the UK in the 2012 National Student Survey.
In 2011, Heriot-Watt was named as the Sunday Times Scottish University of the Year 2011–2012, with the paper emphasising the employability of the institution's graduates. In 2012, it was again Scottish University of the Year 2012–2013 for the second year running, and also became UK University of the Year for student experience.
In 2014, it was ranked 13th in the UK and 2nd in Scotland by the Guardian University League Table, and 4th in Scotland by the Complete University Guide. In the The Sunday Times 10-year (1998–2007) average ranking of British universities based on consistent league table performance, Heriot-Watt was ranked 49th overall in the UK.
Heriot-Watt is ranked in the 2015–16 World's Top 500 by QS World University Rankings (at 318) and Times Higher Education World University Rankings (at 401–500). A detailed study published in 2015 by Vikki Boliver has shown among the Old universities, Oxford and Cambridge emerge as an elite tier, whereas the remaining 22 Russell Group universities are undifferentiated from 17 other Old universities (including Heriot-Watt) which form the second cluster.
The Students' Association at Heriot-Watt is a student-led organisation headed by individuals elected from the student population. The Association has represented students both locally and nationally since its foundation in 1966, and is a member of both the Edinburgh Students' Forum and the National Union of Students (NUS). It is also responsible for running the University's Student Union, which runs events for students and supports student societies. Over 50 societies currently exist, including the Brewing Society which organises an annual charity beer festival. In addition, the Students' Association runs several services at the Edinburgh and Scottish Borders campuses including catering facilities, a nightclub, an advice centre and a student shop.
The Sports Union is responsible for the University's 30 sports clubs and runs annual social events for students involved in sport. As with the Students' Association, the organisation is headed by elected Heriot-Watt students.Robert Buchan, British/Canadian businessman, founder of Kinross Gold Corporation
Adam Crozier, British businessman, chief executive and television executives; Chief Executive of ITV
Roger Jenkins, British financier, former Chief Executive of Barclays Private Equity, Principal Investments and Structured Capital Markets
Bob Keiller, British businessman, Chief Executive of Wood Group
Ian Ritchie, British businessman, founder of OWL, missed WWW opportunity of Tim Berners-Lee
Michael Lombardi, Canadian businessman, founder of Lombardi Media Corporation
Nathif Jama Adam, Somali banker and politician
Sarah Boyack MSP, former Minister for Transport of Scotland
Ingvald Godal, former Member of the Norwegian Parliament and former Chairman of the Norwegian Support Committee for Chechnya
Bernie Grant, British Labour Party politician, the Member of Parliament for Tottenham from 1987 to 2000; Britain's first Afro-Caribbean MP (did not graduate)
Fiona Hyslop MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs in the Scottish Government
Hassan Ali Khaire, Somali politician, Prime Minister of Somalia
Archy Kirkwood, Baron Kirkwood of Kirkhope, former Liberal Democrat MP
Mark MacGregor, Conservative Party politician
Brian Monteith, former Conservative MSP
Lord Martin O'Neill, Baron O'Neill of Clackmannan, former Labour MSP
Teo Ho Pin, Member of the Singapore Parliament
Henning Skumsvoll, Member of the Norwegian Parliament
Graham Watson MEP, President of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party
Lord Mike Watson, Baron Watson of Invergowrie, former MP and MSP
Jock Clear, Formula One engineer
Keith "Swaz" Fraser, Olympic skier (Graduated 1991 with M.Eng in Civil Engineering)
Michael Jamieson, British swimmer and Olympic silver medallist (did not graduate)
Ross Jamison, Hong Kong racing driver
Lee Jones, current member of the Scotland national rugby union team
Kourosh Khani, Iranian racing driver
Shirley Robertson, TV presenter and double Olympic gold medallist
Jack Ross, British professional footballer
Gordon Shedden, British auto racing driver
Kygo, Norwegian DJ and record producer
Dame Muriel Spark, British writer
John Thomson, pioneering photographer
Deepak Tripathi, historian and former journalist
Irvine Welsh, British writer of the novel Trainspotting
Greg Wise, British actor and producer
Joanne Yeoh, Malaysian violinist and music lecturer at Universiti Putra Malaysia
Gary Younge, writer and journalist
Christina Cruickshank Miller, chemist
Iain Baikie, Physicist winner of Swan Medal and Prize
James Nasmyth, inventor of the steam hammer
Liam Burns, NUS UK President 2011–13
Fiona Watson, political affairs officer
Thomas Hudson Beare, chair of mechanics and engineering, 1887–1889
George Murray Burnett FRSE (1921–1980) served as Principal 1974 until 1980.
Andrew John Herbertson, lecturer in industrial and commercial geography, 1896-1899