The dross behind the gloss

You can't judge a college by its prospectus any more than you can tell what a holiday will be like from a brochure, warns Alan Jenkins
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The Independent Online
The time has come to start studying those glossily beguiling prospectuses persuading you to come to this or that university, to take this or that course. They will inform you that their institution or department is "focused on student needs", or provides "quality teaching by internationally recognised researchers".

In choosing where to go to college, you should treat these prospectuses with an even more critical perspective than you would a holiday brochure with equally beguiling pictures and words.

The prospectuses may show you pictures of small groups of students working with a tutor, or an individual student working at a computer. You need to ask, what views are not being shown, what information is not being revealed? Where are the pictures and warning words of first-year lecture halls crammed full of 400 students? Where are the shots of students desperately trying to get near a computer or find their personal tutor, or of staff trying to cope with the latest round of government cuts?

My job takes me into a great variety of higher education institutions, and scenes such as these are increasingly common as these cuts make further impacts.

The parallels between choosing which college to attend and where and with which firm to go on holiday extend further. In both cases you represent money to the operator, and both are highly competitive. So as the "consumer" you must look behind the glossy pictures and read between the lines.

Do not rely solely on prospectuses. Your choice of university will affect the satisfaction you get out of the next three years and, probably, the kind of job you get.

Alternative guides such as the Push Guide to Which University provide details on sporting, entertainment and student union facilities. Such guides also provide advice on the availability and cost of accommodation and whether the institution assists those many students who have to work part time.

Even the unofficial guides hardly mention the issues of teaching organisation or quality. Students on the courses are an excellent source and on open days seek them out with specific questions, and ask diplomatic, if firm, queries of the staff.

Who will teach you in the first year? You need to ensure that most of your teaching won't be by part-time staff or postgraduates hired to enable the staff featured in the prospectus to get on with research.

What academic support will you get in making sense of your course and dealing with any uncertainties you have about the course (of particular importance in modular courses, where informed choice about what courses to take is so important).

What is the failure and drop-out rate in this course?

How will you be taught and assessed?

What size are the classes?

What are the strengths of studying this subject at this university (and perhaps what are the weaknesses)?

How does this subject differ from the seemingly same subject at other universities? You can learn a lot by looking at the notices on the student noticeboards and the staff offices. In some departments you will see that all staff clearly indicate that they are regularly available to see students. In others, the doors are closed and uninviting.

Some of you may be able to get hold of accounts by staff from other universities who have visited and "inspected" the quality of teaching in the department or subject you are considering. Indeed, selected favourable comments may now be found in some prospectuses. These teaching quality assessments are as yet only available for some subjects and departments. The Higher Education Funding Councils for England, Wales and Scotland organise and publish the results of these visits and you can obtain them - at a price. Alternatively, your school or college library may stock some.

I hope the argument I have presented is not totally depressing. Much of it saddens me. Studying at university can both transform your understanding of those subjects that interest you and help you to chart the rest of your life. You need to ensure it is an informed choice. When you get to university, I hope you work in your course or in the student union to ensure those who might follow you, don't have to rely solely on glossy pictures.

The author works in the Educational Methods Unit at Oxford Brookes University. He is writing in a personal capacity.