Edinburgh University Union

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Edinburgh University Union, based in Teviot Row House, was opened on 19 October 1889.


Following its formation in 1884, Edinburgh University's Students' Representative Council set as its first priority the opening of a University Union, to provide recreational and social facilities for students and staff. Buoyed by its success in organizing student participation in the Tercentenary Festival, the SRC embarked upon a campaign to raise funds for the proposed union buidling. Letters were sent to prominent figures in Edinburgh and public subscription lists were opened. £5000 was raised in this manner, and further contributions were received from the Senatus Academicus (£500) and Town Council (£100). In November 1886, a Fancy Fair at Waverley Market brought in a further £10,000, enabling the SRC to engage an architect Sydney Mitchell (1856-1930) who began construction on a site adjoining the newly opened Medical School.


The union building (in a distinctive fifteenth-century palace-block style) was officially opened on 19 October 1889. It was very much designed on the lines of a Victorian gentleman's club. It included a restaurant, library (with books donated by academics and former students), gymnasium (later converted into a billiards room), and a debating hall, which would become both a meeting place for many university societies and a venue for dances and other social events. The newly opened Union was run by an elected Committee of Management headed by the Union President, Membership was by subscription, however, and only a small minority of students joined. Unsurprisingly, given the proximity of the Union to their classrooms, medical students were initially in a great majority, and would indeed dominate the Union until its merger with the SRC to form the Edinburgh University Students' Association in 1973.

All-Male Membership

The original 1889 constitution of Edinburgh University Union forbade the admission of women. Consequently an Edinburgh University Women's Union opened at 53 Lothian Street in October 1905. A dramatic rise in female student numbers over the next two decades, led the Women's Union to seek larger premises, and they eventually relocated 54 George Square in 1927. The first real challenge to the all-male nature of Edinburgh University Union came in 1936, when the Debates Committee decided to permit women to attend and participate in Union debate for the first time. It invited two final year medical students, Agnes McLaren and Ian MacQueen (the new Senior President of the SRC) to address the house on the motion 'This House believes that abortion should be legalised'. The Union's Committee of Management swiftly produced a regulation barring women from all parts of the Union, including the Debating Hall. The invitation to McLaren was cancelled and a male student invited instead. MacQueen, though, stood by McLaren and announced their intention to hold a rival debate in hired premises. At length, a compromise was reached whereby women were allowed to participate in Union debates but not be main speakers. The abortion debate went ahead with McLaren participating vigorously from the floor. Soon after, the Debates Committee was replaced by a University Debates Committee containing members nominated by the SRC, the University Union, and the Women's Union.

Scheme for a Joint Union

Union membership declined in the interwar years, due to a) the opening of Cowan House as a student Hall of Residence in George Square with full catering services b) the opening of a separate union, King's Buildings House, at the new Faculty of Science campus, and c) the proliferation of coffee shops, restaurants, and bars outside the university which proved a disincentive to paying the Union's subscription fee. This led to a first scheme, promoted by Sir Donald Pollock (1868-1962), to bring the SRC, the University Union, and the Women's Union together into a Joint Union, which would be open to all students, either free of charge or at a very much more moderate subscription rate. Unfortunately, the Government proved reluctant to provided funding for the proposed Joint Union, and fears of exorbitant inscription fees and loss of independence led to the abandonment of the scheme.

Transfer of Ownership of Union Building

In 1961, the Union's Committee of Management voted to transfer ownership of the Union building to the University itself. This was the result of eight arduous years of negotiation between the Union's Committee of Management and the University Court. Throughout the 1950s, the Union had opposed the Court's plan for a Composite Matriculation Fee which would entitle all male matriculated students to membership of the Union. According to this plan, the University would give funds to the Union to replace the previous subscriptions. The Union had argued, however, that a subscription fee was necessary to remain the club-like nature of the organization and, more pressingly, because the Union building could not cater for the full male student population. Finally, the Court's commitment to funding a much-needed extension to the Union persuaded the membership to vote in favour of transferring ownership to the University and accepting the Composite Matriculation Fee. The subscription fee was replaced by a £1 deposit (returnable on graduation) to be paid by all matriculated students wishing to join the Union.

Relations with the Students' Representative Council

Although the Edinburgh University Union had been established by the Student' Representative Council, it was fully autonomous, and by the 1960s relations with its parent body were somewhat fractious. There had long been a distinct difference between the membership of the two bodies. The male-only Union was dominated by medical students and placed great emphasis on sporting prowess (particularly rugby). The mixed-gender SRC, conversely, was dominated by Arts, Law (and subsequently Social Science) students and had elected a female Senior President as early as 1915. Ill-feeling between the two bodies had emerged in the 1930s, when the SRC had been critical of the Union's male-only policy and in the 1950s when it had supported the University Court's Composite Matriculation Fee scheme. In the 1960s, the SRC increasingly felt that the Union's male-only policy and opposition to automatic Union membership were obstacles to the creation of a fully united, integrated student body. The Union, meanwhile, were angered by the SRC's success in dissuading the University Court from increasing funding to the Union unless it revise its membership policies.

Foundation of Edinburgh University Students' Association

By 1970, there was a concerted campaign to bring all student bodies together into a single organization. While many in the University Union were eager to retains its fully autonomy, there was growing recognition that restricted membership was an obstacle to acquiring university funding for much needed refurbishment and expansion. There were fears too that the planned new amenities at Potterrow would be run by the SRC or by the University itself, providing a powerful rival to the Union. A series of votes were held on admitting female members to the Union. Although each resulted in a majority in favour of the motion, it was only on 5 January 1971, that the 75% vote required by the Union's constitution was obtained. Chambers Street Union (formerly the Women's Union) had already voted to admit men. Another momentous vote occurred on 21 April 1972 when the Union voted to make all matriculated students automatic members of the Union.

The path now seemed to be clear for the SRC, University Union, and Chambers Street Union to merge into a single body. It was soon established, however, that the SRC could not be dissolved as it had been officially recognised by the Universities (Scotland) Act 1889. Nor was it possible to alter its constitution in a way that would permit it to take over responsibility for the unions. In the end, it was resolved that the Students' Representative Council and Edinburgh University Union would continue to exist as discrete entities within the proposed association, a move which eased the fears of many Union members over loss of autonomy. Chambers Street Union, conversely, would merge entirely with Edinburgh University Union. Edinburgh University Students' Association was officially constituted on 1 July 1973. Each newly matriculated student would automatically become a member. Under the constitution of the EUSA, Edinburgh University Union not only remained responsible for managing the Union building at Teviot Row House but took over the running of the new Potterrow facilities and the Chambers Street Union building.

See Also


  • Robert D. Anderson, 'The Construction of a Modern University', in Robert D. Anderson, Michael Lynch, and Nicholas Phillipson, The University of Edinburgh: An Illustrated History (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003), pp. 103-207.
  • Iain Catto (ed.), 'No spirits and precious few women': Edinburgh University Union 1889-1989 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Union and Iain Catto, 1989)
  • Sir Thomas Henry Holland, 'Introduction', in A. Logan Turner (ed.), History of the University of Edinburgh 1883-1933 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1933), pp. xiii-xxx.