The type and size of university

The student experience, your experience, will vary hugely depending on where you choose to go. It’s worth doing the research and making sure you know what you’re getting.

Student With Books

Old and new universities

This might seem like a superficial choice, but it’s not. The age of a university is going to be related to the kind of education it offers and the atmosphere it cultivates.

  • Older universities tend to be more academic. They’ll specialise in traditionally academic subjects; in Maths, English Literature and History. They tend to take on school leavers with a solid set of A Levels at their back.  
  • They’ll also have something of an international focus. Attending a university like this, will put you in contact with an almost global academic community.
  • That also means research tends to be a huge deal in older, academic universities. You’ll be taught by experts in their respective fields – the people writing books about your chosen subject. That might mean there’s slightly less of a focus on teaching, but it will mean you’re on the cutting edge of your subject of study, and that you might have the chance to assist in some of that research yourself.

Newer universities tend to be slightly different

Often, they’re former polytechnics which became fully-fledged universities in 1992. That means they’ve got a local and vocational focus. 

  • Newer universities skew their courses towards teaching, not research. That might mean you get smaller classes and a little more attention from your tutor, but it also means doing without the top-tier facilities other students might get.
  • It also means there’s a much keener sense of community. Newer universities tend to work much more closely with local towns. A Creative Writing course might see students selling their work via a local bookseller, for example.
  • They also tend to be much smaller, with around 3,000 students to the 30,000 you’ll find in a bigger, more academic university. There’ll be fewer societies and a little less student activism, but you’re less likely to get lost in the flow of lectures, seminars and the general hubbub of campus life.  

Like everything, though, there's nuance you're going to want to think about. 

  • Some universities, like Lancaster, offset the impersonality of their size by filtering students through colleges. You’ll get all the intimacy of a small university, but all the scope of a larger one.
  • Large cities with huge student populations might play host to relatively small university sites. Your own university might be small, but you’ll be rubbing shoulders with plenty of people your own age nonetheless.
  • It’s also worth bearing in mind that a university’s relative age isn’t nearly as important as the quality of its course. Liking the look of that is more important than anything else.

University prestige

No one likes to admit it, but there is, definitely, an academic hierarchy in the UK. Universities in the top ten in league tables are invariably going to be better regarded than those in the bottom or even in the middle. They’re likely to have stronger research, stronger teaching, spend more on their facilities and better links to employers and to other universities abroad. Most students try to get into the ‘best’ institution (best being the best ranked) they possibly can.

That’s perfectly fine but, to do it, you’ve got to be realistic.

Top universities usually have entry requirements to match; the higher up the league tables you go, the more they’re going to demand of you. So, if you’re predicted three Cs at A Level, it’s worth knowing that a lot of the top universities might be looking for something more.

More than this, the better ranked a university, the more rigorous the course. Universities like Oxford and Cambridge are infamous for the amount they demand of their students and pushing yourself to get the grades for a top university might be a grand stretch as it is. You might have to ask yourself whether or not you’re attending university for the social scene and the associated opportunities, or for the intellectual challenge of a degree in and of itself. 

To get more of a feel for the ethos and the character of different universities, to get a sense for what it might be like to attend, make sure to check out our university profiles. More than that, though, make sure to visit for yourself; book an open day and get yourself down there. A personal visit should be your ultimate test of a university.