If you’ve concluded that university is right for you and you know what subject you want to study, how do you decide where to go? With UCAS alone handling applications for undergraduate courses at over 380 institutions across the UK, it’s no wonder that deciding on a university isn’t always easy.
Depending on your chosen subject, you may or may not have a great deal of choice. With specialist subjects, there may only be a few courses available, but for the more common disciplines, you have a wide range of universities to choose from.
In this article we look at ten factors to consider:
- Type of institution
- The vibe
- Personal Interests
Type of institution
Although we tend to talk about ‘university’ in the broad sense, higher education courses are offered through a range of institutions. You could study at a college of further education, at an institute of technology, at a specialist college, such as a conservatoire, land-based college or school of art and design, or a private institution.
Universities themselves vary widely, some are huge with tens of thousands of students on a broad range of courses, whereas others are relatively small and focused on a narrower range of subjects. Some universities are well-established ‘red-brick’ institutions, others are ‘new’ universities – often former colleges or polytechnics.
You may have a strong preference for a particular type of institution. You might dream of studying somewhere like Oxford or Cambridge, which are steeped in tradition, or feel happier going to a more modern or smaller institution, for example, that has a strong focus on a particular subject area or one with a strong sense of community.
Teaching and assessment styles can vary depending on the type of institution you choose, for example, if you go one of the 24 members of the Russell Group of universities, you’ll find that there is a strong emphasis on research.
- Would you prefer to be located in a large city or a smaller town, or even a rural area?
- Do you have a particular connection with a certain place? The familiarity might be a comfort while you’re adjusting to independent living.
- If there’s a suitable course, would you consider staying local? Although some people feel this option wouldn’t give them the full university experience, this can depend on the effort you make to get involved in university life.
- If you want to go further afield, how far away are you prepared to travel and how often do you envisage you will go home? How good are the transport links and how much are typical rail, coach, ferry or plane fares?
- What about the cost of living in the area you are considering? More on this later.
Do you like the idea of a campus university with pretty much everything you need on site? Campuses are often attractively landscaped and based on the outskirts of a town or city. Or would you prefer to be at a city-based university? These often have a lively atmosphere and give you the opportunity to get involved in local activities and events.
Considerations should include the distance you may have to walk from one university building to another and personal safety.
The atmosphere of a university is often determined by its size. Smaller universities can sometimes have a better sense of community but larger ones may have more facilities etc.
It can be difficult to put your finger on what appeals about a certain university. The best way to tell whether the general atmosphere might suit you is to visit it. Universities offer open days to prospective students which allow you to look around the facilities and accommodation, so visit institutions' websites to find out when the next open day events are.
It’s obviously important to have a decent library, computer access and a well-run careers service, but other things may also be important to you.
Are there medical and dental services on site? What about shops, a laundrette, bars and cafes? Is there an active students’ union? If sport is your thing, does the institution have courts, pitches, gyms and/or a pool? If you like the arts, are there theatrical or musical facilities?
Equally important are the facilities at the department or faculty you’re considering. Do the lecture theatres, laboratories, workshops, studios etc have up-to-date equipment?
The reputation of the actual faculty or department offering the course you are considering may be as important as the university overall. Some departments are centres of excellence with top-class research facilities and/or strong links with employers.
Some institutions are recognised by professional/regulatory bodies so taking a course at one of these universities may make it easier (or be necessary) for you to enter certain professions.
Discover Uni provides graduate destination data for individual courses and allows you to compare courses based on student satisfaction, teaching quality, employability, future earnings and other factors.
Each year, various university rankings are published. You need to work out what factors within these are important for you. Examples of rankings include:
- Guardian - The Best UK Universities
- The Complete University Guide - University League Tables
- Times Higher Education - World University Rankings and UK University Rankings
- QS World University Rankings
The availability, quality, choice, location and cost of student accommodation are all important considerations when deciding on a university. Some have plenty of rooms in halls of residence, at least for first-year students, but check whether a place is guaranteed or not and what this accommodation includes.
How much help does the institution provide for students looking for accommodation? Many students from their second year onwards live in shared houses or flats. Once again, it’s worth finding out how readily available these are and what sort of rents are payable.
Whether you’re into archery or astronomy, badminton or baking, music or mahjong, politics or performance, going to university is often the time in your life when you can give things a go. You may have an existing interest or want to do something new.
Find out whether the university itself has clubs or societies you could join or whether there are any in the local area. There may be less choice at smaller institutions so they may not cater for those with niche interests.
If you enjoy socialising, how active is the nightlife? Are there regular concerts and other events? Is there an active students’ union programme?
The cost of living (the amount you pay for rent, groceries, eating out etc) varies from one part of the country to another, so this is something you will want to investigate. The most expensive areas are in London and the South East. However, term-time and vacation jobs may be more plentiful and better paid in these locations.
According to the Accommodation Costs Survey 2023 by Unipol and the NUS, the average cost of purpose-built student accommodation in the UK was £535 per month, but in London this figure was £663.
Living at home whilst studying may save you money, but only if your family charges you less than the going rate for board and lodging. As mentioned above under ‘Location’, another factor to consider is the cost of travelling to university.
If you’re thinking of studying abroad, some countries have lower tuition fees and/or the cost of living may be lower than in the UK.
Institutions provide a range of welfare and academic support to students, but the availability and type of support provided varies from one university to another. Investigate any support services that are important for you, for example if you have a disability, long-term health condition or other additional needs.
If you’re interested in equality and sustainability, the Times Higher Education has produced university Impact Rankings based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
With all the factors outlined above in mind (and any others that are important for you), begin researching institutions as soon as possible. Websites, such as, The Complete University Guide, UCAS, WhatUni?, TheUniGuide and Apply To Uni, are a good start.
Morrisby customers can also use our course search application to conduct their research, and to find out more about universities.
Once you’ve narrowed down your list of possible universities, if at all possible, attend open days and/or other events; you can search for these through, for instance, opendays.com or on some of the sites listed above, or on individual institutions' websites. Book places early. If you can’t attend in person, some universities offer virtual visits/tours.
At open days, try to speak with current students and ask them about their experiences and opinions of the university. Alternatively, you may be able to communicate with students online. If you have specific questions, university admissions officers or other staff should be able to help.
Where you end up studying is fundamental to your whole experience of higher education, so your decision shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you seek advice and do your research, hopefully you’ll find your perfect match.
Debbie Steel, Updated September 2023
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.