Forget the ratings and the rankings; when it comes to choosing a university in Wales, it's a case of location, location, location for adventurous students.
Oxford and Cambridge may have the ancient buildings and grassy quads, but in terms of outdoor sports they can hardly compete with towns such as Bangor and Aberystwyth which have the sea and mountains on their doorsteps. Further south, Glamorgan and Newport are within easy distance of the Brecon Beacons, and Swansea has the Gower Peninsular.
Active clubs for climbing, caving, potholing, mountain biking or canoeing at the universities and their surrounding areas provide an outdoor playground for students at universities and colleges in Wales, which in turn produce a steady stream of national and international competitors.
Professor Merfyn Jones, vice-chancellor of Bangor University, is in no doubt about the draw of the countryside. "Bangor's unique location on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park, and close to the varied coastline of Gwynedd and Anglesey, lends itself to outdoor pursuits of all kinds, from climbing and hill walking to paragliding and watersports," he says. "Our students show a considerable appetite for sport and outdoor activities, with over 45 sporting clubs and 1,500 members of the athletic union.
"The outdoor activities offered by the unrivalled environment are a major draw for many of our students. Taking part in sport and outdoor recreation is an integral part of campus life. It establishes a healthy lifestyle, develops friendships and hones vital leadership and team-working skills."
Among the sports stars at Bangor is Jessica Oughton, a first-year student of creative studies and Italian, who is the national ladies' champion in sprint and classic kayak canoe and has been awarded one of the university's £500-a-year sports scholarships.
Charlotte Jelleyman, studying sports science with outdoor activities at Bangor, discovered mountaineering in her first year and now is the treasurer of the climbing club. Her extra-curricular interest has spilled into her academic work and she will specialise in altitude research in the third year of her degree. "The university has an indoor wall and there are two local walls just outside Bangor that we use," she says. "When the weather permits, we travel all around the crags and mountains of Snowdonia, such as the slate quarries and the Llanberis Pass which is good for every style of climbing."
Aberystwyth University's department of sport and exercise science has been designated a training centre for mountain biking in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, and has four internationally recognised trails within 20 miles. Teams will be able to use the department's cutting-edge facilities, such as an environmental chamber, which allows cyclists to train in hot, cold and humid conditions.
Jonathan Baker, a keen mountain biker, chose Aberystwyth because of the good reputation of its sport and exercise science department, but also because he loves hills. After his undergraduate studies, he did not want to leave and stayed on as a PhD student, conducting research into the determinants of endurance performance. It also enabled him to continue to pursue his passion for cycling in the Welsh hills and valleys.
"Lots of students get involved in the outdoor life, with mountain biking, climbing, canoeing, caving, mountaineering, sailing and surfing being very popular," he says. Before starting his undergraduate studies, Baker competed in cross-country mountain biking for 10 years, ending his career in the elite category. Coming from the flatlands of Cheshire, the local terrain in Wales provides the challenge he seeks, but sometimes at a cost: he is recovering from a serious knee injury for which he had to be airlifted to hospital a few weeks ago.
For as little as £2 a week, students can learn to climb or kayak in safety at the University of Glamorgan before tackling the great outdoors. Among the instructors is Paul Rogers, a PhD student in the engineering department, who takes parties of students to local sandstone quarries and limestone cliffs and then further afield to peaks in the Gower Peninsular and Pembroke.
"I started to climb when I was at De Montfort [in Leicester], my first university, and was already a qualified instructor when I came here," he says. "The opportunities for climbing in Wales weren't a driving factor in my decision to come to Glamorgan, but they were certainly a bonus. There is a wealth of climbing in a 10-minute radius of Pontypridd. The Brecon Beacons are just 25 minutes down the road, offering some fantastic walks and ice-climbing in winter, if you are lucky with conditions."
The south Wales valleys are also renowned for some of the best caving in the UK, he says, and many of Rogers' friends are mountain bikers, using the downhill tracks in the Afan forest and Cwmcarn in Risca. "The student climbing club arranges various trips and social events throughout the year. It's a great opportunity for students to try something different and make new friends," he says. "Whatever your outdoor interest, it will be catered for in Wales."
'In the summer, I'm on the beach'
Rachel Stroud, 20, is studying zoology at Bangor University.
"My top choices were Bangor and Plymouth, which both have excellent biology departments, but what swayed it was the fact that Plymouth can't compete with north Wales for the hills.
Bangor has an excellent climbing club, which has won the Bangor Athletic Union club-of-the-year prize. It gives students an opportunity to see the hills from a different perspective and make a great group of friends with similar interests.
It's just paradise being here. In the summer, I'm on the beach, back to the university for dinner and then climbing in the evening.
I originally wanted to go into fish conservation, but now I'd like to go into outdoor and environmental education. I want to work with people and I'm thinking of teaching, perhaps at a field study centre so I can work with people of all ages and backgrounds."
Higher conscience: the Centre for Alternative Technology
A community of hippies communing with nature on the site of a disused slate quarry in Wales has evolved into Europe's leading eco-centre.
More than 30 years after a group of young people living with leaking roofs and without electricity set out to alert the nation to the wasteful use of natural resources, the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) is a powerhouse of innovation which has inspired many successful projects and businesses.
For schools, colleges and universities in Wales, the centre at Machynlleth in Powys, half an hour's drive from Aberystwyth, is a resource that runs a free information service, visits for schools and residential courses.
The centre has teamed up with the University of East London which validates specialist diplomas and Masters degrees delivered by academic staff at the centre. It offers an architecture MSc and a Masters in renewable energy and the built environment. Student Owen Morgan, 26, says enrolling on the MSc course helped him land a job with Bright Light Solar, a mid-Wales renewable energy company which provides solar powered vaccine fridges, water pumps and heating systems to rural areas worldwide.
"Everyone is there because they are passionate about sustainability. We inspire each other to push the frontiers of what can be achieved," he says. LLReuse content