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Going Higher: A fresh look at the new centre of learning

The Midlands may not always be the most scenic of places but it has a lot to offer the student - cheap accommodation, a varied nightlife and some of the country's brightest universities. Diana Appleyard investigates the region's changing character
The impression many people still have of the Midlands is that it is something of a cultural desert. Today, however, nothing could be further from the truth. While the factory chimneys of Stoke may still belch out the smoke from 100 factories and the Brummie accent remains as impenetrable as ever, the nature and character of the big cities and towns have changed dramatically.

The Bull Ring still stands in Birmingham - but now alongside it the city boasts the multi-million-pound International Convention Centre, which recently played host for the second time to the European Summit, welcoming leaders from all over the world. Inside the centre is one of Europe's leading concert venues, Symphony Hall, with its state-of-the-art acoustics. Next door to the ICC is the National Indoor Arena, which seats thousands and is now host to some of this country's top sporting and cultural events.

Birmingham has one of the largest student populations outside of London, with around 25,000 students at the University of Birmingham, the University of Central England and Aston University.

Of the three main institutions, the University of Birmingham is the longest established.

The university is sited on a 230-acre campus, in the leafy and affluent area of Edgbaston, and has the feel of a (very large) Oxford college. Many of the buildings are architectural gems and despite being only three miles from the city centre, there is a pleasant, rural air.

Aston University is one of the top science universities in this country. Despite going through a rather lean time financially in recent years - largely due to its refusal to expand as rapidly as many other higher education institutions - the university boasts excellent information technology facilities with 12 computer suites and a pounds 4m local area network which links the entire campus with data and video channels.

The University of Central England has a high ratio of mature students - 63 per cent. About half of the students come from the West Midlands.

Life for students in Birmingham is fun. The city is packed with a huge variety of restaurants - from the infamous balti houses to up-market French and Italian restaurants. The nightlife is extensive and varied, living is cheap and accommodation is plentiful, if not necessarily grand.

Down the A46 from Birmingham lies the city of Coventry. Extensively bombed during the Second World War, it is not the most aesthetically-pleasing city in Britain, but it has the advantage of very cheap accommodation and easy access to Birmingham. The city houses two universities - the University of Warwick and the new University of Coventry.

The University of Warwick is one of the most successful of the new wave of universities, recently ranked higher than Oxford for its teaching standards. Set on a large campus, it has an extremely active students' union and the campus also boasts the Warwick Arts Centre - the second largest arts complex in the UK.

In the city itself is Coventry University. Almost half of the students are mature and the university has an excellent reputation for teaching. It specialises in practical courses.

For perhaps more scenic environs, what better place to look than Nottingham. The campus of the University of Nottingham lies 10 minutes from the city centre by bus. Architecturally impressive, it is seen as a rather well- heeled place and one of the most attractive in Europe.

Down the road Nottingham Trent University is seen as one of the up-and- coming of the new universities. Nottingham itself is a very trendy, "happening" city. Nightclubs are many and various, drinks and restaurants are relatively cheap.

Leicester, like Coventry, suffers from a reputation of not being the most awe-inspiring city in the universe. But the redbrick Leicester University is situated about 10 minutes' walk from the (rather grotty) city centre in a leafy suburb.

In the city itself is the thrusting new De Montfort University, formerly Leicester Polytechnic. One of the most aggressive institutions at marketing itself - it was the first in the country to use television advertising - this is seen as a dynamic place with gorgeous new modern buildings and state-of-the-art computer facilities.

Twenty minutes from Leicester lies Loughborough University, most famous for its sporting and engineering achievements.

It is based in a small market town but its campus is seen by students as an excellent place to socialise.

Derby University is set in the exquisite Peak District and this is the university to come to if you love walking and the countryside. The city is not great but it is cheap and different types of restaurants are plentiful. The university has expanded fast after being given its new status in 1992, and now has almost 12,000 students.

Head north and you reach Staffordshire University, based on two campuses in Stafford and Stoke. While neither place could exactly be described as a sophisticated metropolis, the people are extremely friendly and, once again, living is cheap.

Continue heading north up the M6 and you hit Keele. This rural campus university is famous for the breadth of its courses and student numbers here have expanded by 75 per cent in five years. Its rural situation may not suit everyone's tastes and its nearest centres are Newcastle-under- Lyme and Stoke. Not exactly hot spots, but campus life is said to be lively and there are major plans for the expansion of sports and arts facilities.

Winding your way southwards, you come to Wolverhampton.

The accent here may still be a bit of a joke but this is a very lively city university, with a reputation for technical and practically based courses. It is the third-largest university in the UK, with over 23,000 students and pioneered the open-door higher education policy.

Finally, continue south down the M5 and you come to perhaps the most architecturally pleasing city in the Midlands - the ancient city of Worcester. The campus university college is situated about 15 minutes from the city centre and has around 2,500 students. It is small, friendly - and with access to the city of Worcester it has many good points. Nearby are the Malvern Hills, so no excuse for laziness.