Which university should I choose?
Find a University
Factors to consider when choosing your university
- course syllabus - way you are taught
Choosing your course
- Graduate prospects
The Queen's University of Belfast. Photograph: William Murphy via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Selecting a University
To an outsider, the number of universities in the UK is terrifying, and it is hard to know which one is good for what you want to achieve. Many of the institutions are vastly different so it is also hard to make meaningful comparisons. Different types of universities have their own strengths, so the trick is to find an institution suitable for you. I suggest that you firstly think about what you want from your experience and from your education in terms of future plans, style of learning, or environment. Some of the things you choose to consider may include:
- Academic reputation of the university as a whole
- Academic reputation of your course at that university
- The quality of the research undertaken at the university
- Facilities available, such as labs and 24 hour libraries
- The grades you hope to achieve at school; determining where you can apply
- The opportunities for field work/internships/study abroad
- How you would like to be taught and assessed
- The specifics of your course; are you being taught the areas you are interested in and are useful to you - you may have a subject you would like to study, but what about the course, how the university delivers your chosen subject, what skills it concentrates on
- Support available for international students
- Number of other international students
- The social and cultural societies available to you, and sports societies
- The availability of your place of worship
- The entertainment and sports facilities available, is there something particular you want to concentrate on outside your course, such as photography, theatre, journalism etc. Christopher Nolan chose to go to University College London purely because of its film-making facilities
- Accommodation available, and the costs
- The size of the university; whether you like to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond
- Whether the university is a campus, or built within a city, whether you would like to be among fellow students, or a student part of a city population
- Whether you would like a modern university, or an older setting
- The size of the nearest town and its amenities
- The distance to an airport to take you home
The practical and social aspects of university life can be understood in the specific university prospectuses, however the university in general and reputation can be hard to decipher. Hence I propose four ways in which you can choose your university:
To help you decide between universities, we have also provided a set of University Guides..
The UK uses the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) to assess the quality of research in the UK’s higher education institutions. This assessment is undertaken every five years, the last one published in December 2008, and evaluates each subject individually. Universities often cite these figures in their prospectuses, as a reason to study in their institution and particularly that course.
4* = world-leading
3* = internationally excellent
2* = recognised internationally
1* = recognised nationally
unclassified = below the standard of recognised work
Therefore, a university might state that the subject had 27% of its research activity in a particular subject rated as world-class (4*) or internationally excellent (3*) in the most recent RAE.
Another factor to consider in assessing the research quality of a university is the amount of money it receives in research grants; an institution of superior research quality will receive more money. If you want to continue studying beyond an undergraduate level, especially in a research position, it will therefore be useful to consider one of these institutions. However, the table will be biased towards larger institutions, such as Leeds and Manchester; they obtain more money as they have more staff and more experiments in general. It also is biased towards universities that only do science research, such as Imperial College London. Below is a table displaying the top twenty universities in terms of research grants and contracts.
|1.||University of Oxford||11.||University of Birmingham|
|2.||Imperial College London||12.||University of Nottingham|
|3.||University College London||13.||University of Bristol|
|4.||University of Cambridge||14.||University of Sheffield|
|5.||University of Manchester||15.||University of Southampton|
|6.||University of Edinburgh||16.||Cardiff University|
|7.||King's College London||17.||Newcastle University|
|8.||University of Glasgow||18.||University of Warwick|
|9.||Universtiy of Leeds||19.||Queen Mary, University of London|
|11.||University of Liverpool||20.||Queen's University Belfast|
Universities in the UK have developed out of a number of different factors and criteria which can make it hard for students to choose appropriately. However, as much as this variety also means that there is an institution to suit your needs.
History of Universities
There were originally six universities within the British Isles, but by the time of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, further institutions were built to supplement the education of the general population. These institutions focused on "real-world" skills for men, embracing science, technology and engineering, without reference to religion or background. Built in the heart of industrial cities, the education benefited the individuals, the activities of the city, and the British Empire at large.
The 1963 Robbins Report (the report of the Committee on Higher Education), altered this model by advancing the idea that universities should be available to all who qualified through ability and attainment, and institutions shouldn't be based on elitism. This report led to an expansion in the British university education, with institutions built overnight. These new institutions, referred to as plate glass universities, were often situated out of town, in newly developed campuses.
At the same time, Britain also invested in polytechnics; further education designed to better local students, teaching both academic and professional vocational subjects. Polytechnics focused on education, rather than the universities which focused on both education and research, and lacked degree awarding power. Because they were developed to support local communities, they are often found in towns and cities.
The 1992 Further and Higher Education Act gave polytechnics university status and degree awarding power, and this is the scene we see today. In general, polytechnics tend to offer more vocational courses, often focusing on their original fortes, and universities tend to offer a more traditional, academic curriculum.
League Tables are one way of finding a good university to attend. They examine a number of features including reputation, student satisfaction, job prospects, teaching quality, grade entry, research assessment and citations. National and international league tables can vary drastically, as the league table criteria also varies drastically. To choose the most suitable university for you, decide what factors are most important and use the rankings to guide you. Because there are other factors you might want to include, I would suggest that you not to choose a university solely on these figures.
The Guardian uses eight different ranking criteria, each weighted between 5% and 17%. Unlike other annual rankings of British universities, the criteria do not include a measure of research output. Furthermore, a "value-added" factor is included which compares students' degree results with their entry qualifications so qualifications upon entry are compared to the award they receive at the end of studying. The eight criteria are:
- Entry score (17%)
- Feedback - as rated by graduates of the course (5%)
- Jobprospects (17%) (data source: Destination of Leavers from Higher Education)
- Overall quality - final-year students opinions about the overall quality of their course (data source: the National Student Survey
- Spending per student (17%)
- Staff/student ratio (17%)
- Teaching quality - as rated by graduates of the course (10%) (data source: the National Student Survey)
- Value added (17%)
The Complete University Guide
As an independently produced system, the Complete University Guide uses nine ranking criteria. The nine scores are rated (by 1.5 for student satisfaction and research assessment, and 1.0 for the rest) and summed to give a total score for each university. These total scores are then transformed to a scale where the top score is set at 1,000, with the remainder being a proportion of the top score. The nine criteria are:
- Academic services spend - the expenditure per student on all academic services (data source: Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA))
- Completion - a measure of the completion rate of students (data source: HESA)
- Entry standards - the average UCAS tariff score of new students under the age of 21 (data source: HESA)
- Facilities spend - the expenditure per student on staff and student facilities (data source: HESA)
- Good honours - the proportion of firsts and upper seconds (data source: HESA)
- Graduate prospects - a measure of the employability of graduates (data source: HESA)
- Research assessment/quality - a measure of the average quality of research (data source: 2008 Research Assessment Exercise)
- Student satisfaction - a measure of the view of students on the teaching quality (data source: the National Student Survey)
- Student/staff ratio - a measure of the average staffing level (data source: HESA)
Criticisms of Ranking Systems
Disparity with Global Rankings
You may notice that universities that do well nationally, such as the LSE or St Andrews do not do so well internationally, while other have the opposite problem, such as the University of Manchester. This is mainly due to the variation between ranking criteria and methodology, as well as the purpose of global international rankings. International ranking systems tend to use criteria such as academic and employer surveys, the number of citations per faculty, the proportion of international staff, students and faculty, and alumni prize winners, while national rankings take into account the undergraduate student experience or teaching and learning resources, the academic quality of a university's intake, graduate employment, research quality and dropout rates.
Accuracy and Neutrality
In the UK, league tables are important for universities and they, therefore, do what is in their best interest to increase their league table standing. However, this means that they perhaps chase the rankings, rather than focus on doing what is important for students. A university's ranking can often fluctuate, even if they only perform poorly in one aspect, while at the same time their ranking can increase greatly from just one aspect. Also ranking systems deem different factors to be important, hence universities may not fare similarly across guides.
Universities often create links and partnerships with one another to promote a specific need or outcome, which may include scientific research, business, specialisations, and technology. It may be useful to look at these affiliations because at a UK university it may be possible to study or research at one of their partnership universities, and the larger projects undertaken at these universities may appeal to you.
Founded in 2006, Guild HE, with the tagline "Distinction and Diversity in Higher Education" promotes smaller, often specialist institutions within the UK with the core academic values of teaching, research, subject development and knowledge transfer, arguing for a structure where specialist and generalists institutions can thrive in a broader market place, and in a national and international community. It does this by highlighting the interest and strengths of its members to government, national and international agencies and employers, and by making informed and evidence-based contributions to national policy development and debate in higher education.
|Abertay University||Regent's University London|
|Ashridge Business School||Rose Bruford College|
|University College Birmingham||Royal Agricultural College|
|Bishop Grosseteste University||Royal Central School of Speech and Drama|
|Arts University Bournemouth||Southampton Solent University|
|Buckinghamshire New University||St. Mary's University College, Belfast|
|Falmouth University||St. Mary's University College, Twickenham|
|Glyndwr University/Prifysgol Glyndwr||The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts|
|Harper Adams University||University of St Mark & St John|
|Leeds College of Art||University for the Creative Arts|
|Leeds Trinity College||University of Chichester|
|Newman University||University of Winchester|
|Norwich University of Arts||University of Worcester|
|Plymouth College of Art||Writtle College|
|Ravenbourne||York St John University|
Founded in 1997, million+ is a university think thank which provides research and evidence-based policy to solve problems in higher education. It aims to develop and shape public policy and funding to enable people from all walks of life to benefit from access to universities that excel in teaching research and knowledge transfer, as well as enable businesses, the NHS, and the government to benefit from the potential of universities and its students.
|Abertay University||Edinburgh Napier University|
|Anglia Ruskin University||London Metropolitan University|
|Bath Spa University||London South Bank University|
|University of Bedfordshire||Middlesex University|
|University of Bolton||Staffordshire Unviersity|
|Canterbury Christ Church University||University of Sunderland|
|University of Cumbria||University of West London|
|University of East London||University of the West of Scotland|
N8 Research Partnership
Founded in 2008, the N8 Research Partnership comprises of the 8 research intensive universities in the north of England. It aims to maximise the impact of this research base by identifying and coordinating powerful research teams and collaborations forming a network of virtual centres of science and innovation excellence. Its main research programmes are molecular engineering, regenerative medicine, the impact of demographic change, and parasitology.
|Durham University||University of Manchester|
|Lancaster University||Newcastle University|
|University of Leeds||University of Sheffield|
|University of Liverpool||University of York|
Founded in 1994, the Russell Group represents the 24 leading UK research universities ensuring they have the best conditions in which to flourish and continue to make an impact through their world-leading research and teaching. They do this by:
- inspiring the brightest undergraduates
- training the best postgraduates and postdoctoral workers to create the next generation of innovators and leaders
- guaranteeing that students can thrive at universities best suited to their aptitude, which in turn will maximise their life chances
- generating and preserving knowledge, and extending the boundaries of human understanding
- recruiting and retaining the top academics who are responsible for cutting edge discoveries
- directing resources to where a critical mass of research can be undertaken to ensure the highest international standards with the greatest impact
The members of the Russell Group receive approximately two-thirds of all university research grant and contract income in the UK. Hence places at a Russell Group university are highly competitive, with current entry standards being close to AAA or higher at A Level.
|University of Birmingham||University of Leeds|
|University of Bristol||University of Liverpool|
|University of Cambridge||LSE|
|Cardiff University||University of Manchester|
|Durham University||Newcastle University|
|University of Edinburgh||University of Nottingham|
|University of Exeter||University of Oxford|
|University of Glasgow||Queen's University Belfast|
|Imperial College London||University of Sheffield|
|King's College London||University of Southampton|
|Queen Mary, University of London||University of Warwick|
|University College London||University of York|
Founded in 2006, University Alliance comprises of the 20 major business led universities, with a commitment to delivering world-class research and a quality student experience.
|Bournemouth University||Northumbria University|
|Cardiff Metropolitan University||Nottingham Trent University|
|Coventry University||Oxford Brookes University|
|University of Greenwich||Plymouth University|
|University of Hertfordshire||University of Portsmouth|
|University of Huddersfield||University of Salford|
|Kingston University||Sheffield Hallam University|
|University of Lincoln||Teeside University|
|Liverpool John Moores University||University of South Wales|
|Manchester Metropolitan University||University of West of England|
University of London
The University of London consists of 18 self governing colleges and 10 other smaller specialist research institutions. In many ways the colleges are considered universities in their own right as they set their own entrance criteria for their courses and offer their own services to students.
The University of London was founded in 1836 with the two colleges of University College and King's College, as well as incorporating older institutions, such as St Batholomew's Hospital Medical School and St Thomas' Hospital Medical School which both have twelfth-century origins.
All graduates from a constituent college will obtain a University of London degree, with the post nominal letters Lond., as opposed to a degree specifically from the college, e.g. a King's College London degree.
As a member of the University of London, as well as your collegiate facilities, you can also make use of intercollegiate facilities, which include a union, library, sports and social clubs, and halls of residence.
Those that offer undergraduate degrees include:
|The Central School of Speech and Drama||Royal Academy of Music|
|Courtauld Institute of Art||Royal Holloway|
|Goldsmiths, University of London||Royal Veterinary College|
|Heythrop College||School of Oriental and African Studies|
|King's College London||St George's, UoL|
|LSE||University College London|
|Queen Mary, University of London||University of London Institute in Paris|