Education Quandary

'How do you choose a university? By course or institution? I've got offers from two really good places, and one from a third that is not in the first rank - but its course is the one that looks the most interesting'
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HILARY'S ADVICE

HILARY'S ADVICE

What are you going to university for? Now that three years of student life have become the automatic finishing school for the majority of middle-class young adults, this question is not always easily answered. Many pick their universities for the night life, or the liveliness of the student union, or the most sought-after social mix. (Although, at the other end of the scale, increasing numbers have no choice: cash-strapped students have to opt for courses that enable them to live at home.)

If your main aim in going to university is just to enjoy yourself and come out of it with a respectable degree, it makes sense to choose whichever of the two top places most appeals to you. A good degree from a good university is what employers like to see.

But if you are taking a more vocational course, the picture is different. Mechanical engineers, nutritionists, film-makers and so on will obviously head straight for the course that will give them the best possible grounding for their chosen career.

For more general arts-based degrees, the choices are harder. You need to take a very long look at the course offered by the lower-ranking university. There are some terrific courses on offer from institutions like this, and they are usually well-known and respected in their fields. So go back to the university and ask questions about it. Ask yourself what really interests you about it, then make sure that those elements are a substantial part of the course. Ask who is going to teach you, how much teaching you are going to get, and - very important, this - what sort of jobs students move into. All universities have to keep records on where their students are six months after getting their degrees. Look at the modules you will cover, how much freedom you will have to choose study areas, and whether your work will be assessed more on exams or coursework.

Then do exactly the same for the other two courses you have been offered. Do not assume that their title tells you all you need to know about them. Probe deeper. One linguistics and communications course, for example, is very different from another. You may find that one or other of these courses is much more appealing to you than you at first thought, in which case your dilemma is solved.

There is also a great deal of information on the internet and in guidebooks. Look up sites such as Push Online ( www.push.co.uk) and Potter Guides ( www.potter-guides.com), and read The Virgin 2005 Alternative Guide to British Universities (Virgin Books, £15.99). Also, check out The Independent's A-Z of colleges and universities as well as its A-Z of degrees (education.independent.co.uk), and find out about teaching standards via the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education ( www.qaa.ac.uk).

It makes sense to visit any university you are interested in. That way, you can get the feel of the lay-out, the city, the facilities and what the students are like. You can ask about help with study skills, access to computers, and student housing. However, bear in mind you can hold two offers in your hand, and don't have to decide on those until the end of April, so you have time to think.

READERS' ADVICE

I too was in a similar situation when deciding which university to attend. While having a degree from a prestigious university may help in the employment market, always bear in mind that disliking a course is a common cause of dropping out. If possible, speak to people from all three universities and see what their experiences are. Being interested in the course will help you to achieve a good degree, which will be beneficial when you are seeking graduate employment.

When I was in a similar position, I chose course over institution, because I felt it was more important to study interesting topics for four years than less interesting ones at a prestigious university. It all worked out well in the end: I later discovered that having a good degree from a good course will be appreciated by employers. Having said this, some of the most important learning occurs outside the lecture halls. If possible, visit the universities, and find out if you can "see" yourself there. Most of all, trust your intuition.
Kate Sang, Loughborough

It depends what your primary motivation is for going to university: is it an interesting and challenging course or the kudos that goes with a "known" university?

If you're not sure that a higher flying sounding university will hold your interest, it is worth looking at the course at your least favoured choice in more detail. Maybe go for a visit, and then at least you will feel that you have researched your final decision thoroughly.
Richard Sharp, London SW16

In purist terms, opt for course over establishment; an interesting curriculum should boost your motivation over this sustained period of study. The importance of an institution's prestige depends on the type of workplace you have in mind for the future. How well the department is regarded may be more important if the course leads to a specific sphere of employment.

When weighing up these factors, check that the course you fancy is indeed different from the others, as opposed simply to being marketed well by using interesting titles. Remember the fad for multimedia? whole swathes of computer science courses were renamed using this word without being any different from their staider rivals.
Cole Davis, www.careersteer.com

Go for the course you think will interest you most. I made completely the wrong choice when I first went to university. I thought I had to go to the best one that offered me a place, but it was the wrong course for me. I lasted one term, dropped out, and started again where I should have gone in the first place.
Beth Speldman, Canterbury

NEXT WEEK'S QUANDARY

Does anyone outside schools have the first idea how bad pupil behaviour is these days? Does anyone care? I teach in outer London and every day am sworn at, talked over and argued with. I have been punched, had things stolen, and my motorbike vandalised. This isn't just a few troublemakers, it's the norm. Ofsted has written about it, but the only outcome seems to be more blaming of teachers.

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 14 February, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to h.wilce@btinternet.com. Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser

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