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Selecting a university

Your shortlist

Making a shortlist shouldn’t be daunting and this website is here to help you – you need to find a place which suits you physically, as well as finding a place which matches your talents academically.

Don’t just look at league tables: you are looking for a place that suits you – with your interests, aptitudes and budget. It’s worth accepting guidance from parents, teachers etc but do not let them decide for you.

This section of the site should provoke your thinking about different criteria – location, cost of living, student mix etc.

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Location & environment

It is crucially important that you find somewhere you will be happy to spend the next few years of your life.

Do you want to be in a large, busy university with 20,000 students or in a small, cosy place where you will know everyone?

Do you want to remain living at home or be at a university within say 30 miles of home − or do you want to put several hundred miles between you and your parents?

Do you need to study in a place where you can easily find a part-time job? Or where there’s lively theatre? Or keep up with your surfing?

If you have strong views about which region you want to study in, use the Location search at the top of the page.

London: With over 60 universities and colleges and a colossal student population, London is a magnet for students.

But there can be difficulties: not all universities and colleges have adequate accommodation and the private sector can be pricey. Entertainment outside the SU can be expensive too. Students are scattered across a very wide area, so you may have to travel some distance for work and play.

Conversely there are some huge advantages. For starters, London has some of the country’s most distinguished university institutions and specialist colleges − many of international standing. It is second to none on the British cultural scene and ‘cool capital’ of the world. Your student loan will be marginally increased so you have more cash to live on and you may get some student travel concessions. Opportunities for entertainment are infinite – and lots are free if you look for them.

If you don’t fancy a big city, well, that’s another matter.

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Universities with different histories

Universities are a pretty mixed bunch

  • Some have been around for 700 years; some are a lot younger than you are.
  • Some have 1500 students; some over 30,000 (London University has over 120,000).
  • Some are run as a single university; some are federations of separate institutions many miles apart; and others are made up of a collection of independent colleges in the same city.
  • Some will be the right place to study philosophy or chemistry; others are the top places for car design or retail management.
  • In some all undergraduates are full-time; in others almost all are part-time (for instance Birkbeck is almost entirely for part-time students and the Open University solely for distance learning).
  • Some are world-class, research-intensive universities; some concentrate on teaching rather than research.
  • Some universities can pick and choose their students (‘selecting universities’); some are more active ‘recruiting universities’.

Every university has its own unique character. Not only does each have its own range of subjects, teaching, and student mix, but it will also have its own rationale and ethos.

But there are some broad categories of universities with similar histories.

Ancient universities. Some universities have been around for 400 years or more – plenty of time to establish world-class reputations (in those days, the universities were often closely connected to the Church).

Traditional research-led universities. Many of the country’s top universities were established in cities around the country, towards the end of the 19th century. They provided secular education and opened the doors to women, who had previously been excluded from university education. These include the federal universities of London and Wales. Some others started life as university colleges of other universities (eg Newcastle University as a college of Durham University, Exeter University as a college of London University).

The 1960s universities. A burgeoning of new universities, many now established as among the country’s most successful research centres. Some are green-field campus universities and provided a very sixties challenge to the established pattern.

Other established colleges, often technological and usually in cities, were granted university status in the 1960s.

1992 universities. Established polytechnics and colleges of HE were given university status in the 1990s – now often called new or modern universities. Teaching rather than research is their primary concern (although some good research is done in many). They were originally set up to provide more vocational courses and, although some now have a broader range, their best courses still tend to be more practical and job-oriented (eg sports studies or retail management).

Brand new universities. During the first years of the new millennium, several brand new universities were created – always from older institutions. Many started life as education colleges, some as art schools (the constituent parts of Arts London and the Creative Arts University). These brand new universities are often relatively small and, while they are all new universities, they have many years of teaching experience.

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Different groupings of universities

Universities have arranged themselves into a number of different groupings, based on their primary focus.

Russell Group is a group of 24 research-intensive universities (so called because their first meeting was in Russell Square). They have very different origins but, in all of them, the teaching and learning is undertaken within a culture of research excellence. (For more information, visit www.russellgroup.ac.uk).

1994 Group is a group of 14 research-intensive universities - yes, established in 1994. It was established to promote excellence in research and teaching and to enhance student and staff experience in the universities.

University Alliance is a group of 23 business-focused universities, which are major providers of professional education.

million+ group comprises 26 universities, previously polytechnics and colleges of higher education, that have gained university status since 1992.

UKADIA, the UK Arts & Design Institutions Association, is a group of group of specialist art and design institutions in further and higher education.

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A 'top' university

A top, research-led university suits some people and not others. The teaching will be pitched at the general academic strength of those on the course, so you will struggle if the teaching is over your head – but be bored if it is far too slow for you.

If you can identify the top academic universities, you can then be sure to shortlist them or to avoid them like the plague. There are two indicators you might start with: the entry qualifications of new students; and the quality of the research in the university. You will find both when you search for universities on this site.

Points on entry. On the university search tables, click on Entry Points (Avg), to get a list according to the average entry points of new students. This is, of course, only a crude measure − the intake will be different on different courses − but it gives a feel for the overall student body. If the average is over 360, for example, it means most students will have more than 3 A-levels at grade A (or the equivalent).

Research. Click on Research Rating in the search tables to rank universities according to their scoring in the most recent Research Assessment Exercise. Never mind what the numbers actually mean; you just need to know that 30 is the maximum.

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Teaching & research quality

What’s the teaching and research like?

The amount and quality of research going on in a university is a good measure of its academic standing. If you are really academic, you will get into and thrive in the top research-led universities. If you are not, you will probably waste valuable UCAS choices applying there.

Teaching quality varies greatly between departments and between institutions; the QAA website has information on the teaching assessments (www.qaa.ac.uk). But poor teaching quality can be improved relatively fast, unlike research quality. It’s also worth bearing in mind that an approach that suits others may not suit you – you may get a good idea of the approach from the university website.

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Oxbridge (Oxford & Cambridge universities)

The distinctive feature of both Oxford and Cambridge universities is their collegiate system. You are admitted to and belong to a college, which is an independent institution with its own staff, students and finance. With only 200–600 undergraduates, you can get to know most students and it is relatively easy to participate in drama, sport etc. But you also have all the advantages and opportunities that go with belonging to a large university – and one of only a handful of UK universities that is world-class.

You usually need to be pretty bright - capable of at least 3 A-levels at grade A. If you are up to the mark, do not be put off applying, either by their general media image (class bias etc) or by the prejudice of school teachers. They are not just playgrounds for rich, independent-school kids – state-school entrants are in the majority at both. And there are loads of advantages.

Both are top universities, actively looking for bright students particularly from comprehensive schools. There is lots of money around; hardship funds are extremely generous and virtually no students drop out for financial reasons. In fact the drop-out rates at both universities are almost non-existent. Accommodation is available for most, often all, of your course; it is usually reasonably priced and you pay for it only in term time – and terms are relatively short – so it can be a fraction of the accommodation costs at other universities. These are all real plusses.

Women have been accepted in the universities for nearly 100 years, originally in women-only colleges. Except for a handful of women-only colleges in Cambridge, all colleges are now fully mixed at undergraduate level (though you may find the male:female ratio of the staff interesting).

The examinations and much of the teaching is university based but some of the teaching will be in your college. Choosing a college is a bit like choosing a university (are you good enough in the chosen subject, right sort of activities going on etc). At present you are admitted by the college, so making your choice can involve some luck – everyone else wanting your subject may be applying to the same college. Do not be seduced by the buildings and the lawns. You may find the smaller, newer colleges less daunting than the big, grander ones (and it can be easier to get into the women-only colleges). There are descriptions of each college under each of the universities on this website.

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Despite claims to the contrary, employers seldom regard universities or their graduates as equal; they use their own employment criteria. Many are fairly conservative and still prefer graduates from Russell Group universities or only interview from places that are dominant in their fields (eg LSE for economics).

Most graduates leaving university have found a job within six months – some 94% of those known about are in employment or further study. There are some patterns: art students can be slower to find work so art colleges and universities with a lot of art students have lower percentages; universities with vocational degrees involving work experience have higher percentages. The universities with the highest percentage (95+%) in work or study are as follows.

These are historical figures of course (2009/10) and the situation this year is likely to be rather worse. To dig deeper into the employment record of an individual university, look at its website; if there is no information there, ask admissions staff directly. The fact that graduates have found work over the past doesn’t tell the whole story, of course. It doesn’t tell you if they are in a worthwhile job or if they enjoy it − or indeed whether the graduate recruitment market will be as keen to absorb bright young graduates in three or four years time as it has been in the past.

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Cost of living

There are huge differences between the cost of living in different places – and between individual colleges and universities in the same location. For example, living in Bradford is way cheaper than in London; living at home probably cheaper than anywhere else (but you get a lower student loan).

The descriptions of the individual universities on this website give some information about local rents, opportunities for part-time work and the financial safety nets provided. Most universities now give you some idea of the minimum you will need to live on (exclusive of tuition fees) on their websites and in their prospectuses, although a few are too coy to do so. These reveal a huge spread – between £5000 pa and over £12,000 pa.

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Tuition fees

Different universities charge different tuition fees, so it is worth shopping around. There has long been a wide variation in the fees that international students are charged.

From 2012, most universities charge UK and EU students tuition fees of between £6000 and £9000 a year − it will be up to the universities to set their own fees and these may be different for different courses. Fees may be lower where teaching is largely in the classroom, higher for courses taught in a studio or lab (higher still for clinical courses); or frequently it may be that the fees are simply raised where a course is over-subscribed.

You will need to look at the fees charged together with the help that is available to pay them – see Money matters. In terms of selecting your university, students resident in Scotland and Northern Ireland will find it cheaper to study at home in their own country. And it is not wise just to look for the cheapest − to see if the course you want represents good value, you might find it useful to see what the international students are charged.

At some universities, international students may be charged the same fees as home students. But there is no cap imposed on them, so the most sought-after universities can charge a great deal more – up to some £18,000 pa (or, on clinical courses, nearly £40,000 a year). It is worth remembering that this is a real international market − the prestigious universities charge high fees because, internationally, students believe they are worth it.

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Financial help from universities

There is lots of money in the university system to help particular categories of students – but the amount that you might get varies enormously, university by university. Most universities will help students from low-income families – particularly if they have high points on entry (A-levels at grades AAB or equivalent). What a university defines as a low-income family, and what help is on offer, is very variable. On the university search tables on this website, you can see what bursary is offered solely on the basis of your family income being approximately £18k pa – in the column headed Bursaries (£/pa). As you can see, this ranges from 0 pa to over £3000 pa.

There are also earmarked funds, of differing sizes, for particular groups of students − eg students on particular courses, those with high qualifications on entry, those with nursery costs or those from local partner schools and colleges. Almost all have money for students who suddenly hit unexpected hardship during their course. The university descriptions on the website outline what’s on offer to help you choose.

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Exciting extras universities offer

Beyond their degree courses, universities offer a huge variety of opportunities to develop your own personal skills and interests.

There may be free access to language centres and IT courses at all levels of experience and ability; opportunities in sport, both for novices and high-fliers; excellent music, lively drama, debating and more. Or, of course, there may be none of these. There may be stunning libraries and impressive IT provision. And the SU may be large and humming, with an award-winning student mag and major bands at its venue – or not. You can get a flavour of what each university offers in the descriptions on this website.

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Student mix

There are huge variations between the student populations in different universities. It’s not just the male:female ratio and the proportion of students from state/independent schools but also the drop-out rates (range from zero to over 20% in the first year), the proportion of international students or mature students, full- and part-time – not to forget the courses they have signed up to, eg applied science or philosophy, and the standard of qualifications they come with and the level of courses they are studying.

You’ll find out more about the student mix in our university descriptions.

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Where else can you take a degree course?

Apart from the universities and colleges on this website, there are other options for degree courses. About 700 FE colleges and other institutions teach courses leading to a degree – sometimes you spend one or two years in the FE college, then one or two years at a university. In most cases, the degree itself will be awarded by a university but nearly 160 UK institutions can award their own degrees, including a number of companies and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Many US universities and colleges have a campus in the UK which admits British students. Their academic standards are very variable, so students may find it difficult to get British employers and professional bodies to accept their degree as necessarily equal to a UK degree. Some of these American colleges are excellent and of international standing.

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College - does the label matter?

The word ‘college’ can mean many things – a school (eg Eton College), a crammer (Garret Tutorial College, Hackney) or a professional institution (The Royal College of Surgeons).

Those teaching first degrees might be specialist colleges (Royal Northern College of Music), colleges of a university (eg University College London, or Pembroke College, Cambridge) or independent colleges awarding their own degrees (eg Falmouth University College) or the degrees of another university (eg Bradford College).

Further Education colleges may also offer some first degree courses, in addition to A-level and vocational courses; these are always validated by (and the degree awarded by) a university not the college itself. Increasingly, it is possible to take the first one or two years of the course at an FE college, and complete the course at the validating university.

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Featured Universities

Canterbury Christ Church University
Canterbury Christ Church University

Location: Canterbury

Students: 19105

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Liverpool University

Location: Liverpool

Students: 21875

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