Researching Universities: how to make the right choice
When it comes to universities, one size doesn’t fit all, so ensure you’re aware of the range of options
Choosing a university is like choosing a marriage partner — it’s with you for life so it's important to pick the right one. “You wouldn’t rush into a nightclub and grab the first person you saw — likewise, you shouldn’t spend three years at a university without having spent at least three hours looking around beforehand,” says higher education consultant Johnny Rich.
Some 27,000 students dropped out of higher education last year, and four in 10 of those going to university didn’t even attend an open day, according to research by the Higher Education Policy Institute. Around 32 per cent said they might have chosen a different course if they’d had more information.
It’s a lesson learned by Ed Walton, 19, who narrowly missed his grades for Lancaster University. Instead, he accepted a place to study marketing at Coventry University, his second choice, which he had barely researched. “I didn’t fancy staying at home for another year — I wanted to get on,” he says. But he left Coventry within six weeks, unhappy with the course and location, and has since applied to Cardiff University, where he’ll go in September to study economics. “I’ve been much more involved the second time around — speaking to professors and students and finding out where I’ll live. I’m spending this year working and trying to pay off my debts from the false start.”
Around 90 per cent of school-leavers look at individual university websites as their first source of information, says Justin Shaw, management director at public relations agency Communications Management, which recently surveyed how students choose a university. Surprisingly, few use any form of social media to contact current students directly.
Reputation, location and employment statistics influence prospective students, but not enough visit in person, point out admissions tutors. Yet open days can be patchy, believes Jane Phelps, director of external relations at the New College of the Humanities (NCH) in London, who notes that travelling around the country, often with parents in tow, can be expensive and logistically challenging.
“Some open days are well organised and informative, others aren’t,” she says. “Many students visit as ‘tourists’ to find out if they like the feel of the place, but don't get down to the nitty-gritty. They need to ask questions such as, ‘How will I be taught, who will teach me, how will I be examined and what’s the balance of coursework?’”
But the information is there if you look, says Rich, and with a little cross-referencing and intelligent interpretation of statistics, students can glean a lot. His own website push.co.uk offers independent advice and a comprehensive university search, which allows students to prioritise a range of factors, from the institution’s level of “poshness” to the quality of its student newspapers.
Respected independent site bestcourse4me.com differs from other careers sites as it connects data from Ucas, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) and the Labour Force Survey, so you can see what professionals studied or what people really do with their qualifications.
It also shows the grades of students on the course, rather than the grade the department advertises — which may be higher or lower, explains Rich. “If push.co.uk answers what it’s really like at uni, bestcourse4me.com gives some idea where it will take you,” he says.
There are a number of course search sites —coursefinder.telegraph.co.uk for example, allows users to compare information and conduct searches by location, institution and course subject. The Telegraph site also combines information on universities’ Key Information Sets (Kis) — which detail teaching, potential employment and costs of individual programmes — and the annual National Student Survey (NSS) of final-year students with sound advice on making a choice.
Official site unistats.direct.gov.uk also allows students to compare Kis and NSS data, as does user-friendly Which? University (university.which.co.uk). Another site worth browsing isthecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk.
Bear in mind that data gleaned from surveys should be taken with a pinch of salt. “They can be blunt instruments,” warns Rich. The NSS is more related to students’ expectations than results. Likewise, statistics on contact time within Kis can be misleading – are six hours a week of small tutorials better than 40 hours within large classes, for instance?
“I’ve seen a lot of refugees this year,” says Phelps at NCH, “who have gone off with high expectations, found themselves in large seminars with nobody taking an interest and dropped out.”
Student forums can be an excellent way to tap into students’ opinions, but information is anecdotal. “It won’t help you to find the best place to study chemistry, for instance,” says Rich. For open days, one of the best at-a-glance sites is gostudyuk.com.
League tables are a good measure of an institution’s reputation but not a foolproof reflection of the student experience. As a rule of thumb, say government statisticians, most institutions within the top rankings are as good as one another at undergraduate level. “It would be tragic if someone chose a university based on its ranking and neglected to look at whether accommodation was any good,” says Rich.
Amid all the published information, students now neglect one of the most powerful tools: the telephone. Call an admissions tutor or secretary, advises Rich, tell them your name and ask about contact hours and course details. “When they’re sifting through hundreds of applications, your name might just stand out.”