Susan Bassnett : Don't be fooled by all the glossy college PR

'Every university can claim to be the best simply by citing one of the daft league tables'
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The Independent Online

My daughter and her friends have started the process of choosing a university. Glossy prospectuses are piling up in the hall, and the school is running sessions to help sixth-formers find their way through the labyrinth. For, make no mistake, these days choosing a university is much more complex than it ever used to be.

My first child knew which university and which degree she wanted, so she focused from the outset. True, she chose the wrong college, as she opted for one that looked beautiful and had ancient literary associations, only to discover that it was strapped for cash and obsessed with coming top of the college exam league, and that the Master's social skills had been learnt through contact with alien life forms. Nevertheless, she had a good time and doesn't regret the experience.

Daughter number two chose a specific course at a post-92 institution. She too has few regrets, though as a parent I note that her three years cost me an arm and a leg: her accommodation cost three times that of a subsidised Oxbridge college, the poverty of the infrastructure meant I had to buy her a computer, and the cost of living on the south coast was astronomically high.

Glossy prospectuses tell you none of these things. They appear to have been designed by the people who design holiday brochures. You choose a fantastic hotel with photos of sea views, only to find yourself in a fetid little room with a concrete wall outside your window. Prospectuses tell you how wonderful everything is, how vibrant student life is, how brilliant every lecturer is, how well-stocked the library is, how superb the laboratories are, how the IT provision is second to none and how a meal on campus can rival anything served at the Ivy.

Justified by league-table statistics, of course. Since we started on the league-table treadmill, every woman and her dog can be evaluated through some sort of statistical process and proudly located in the top fraction. No matter if the teaching and research scores are low, every institution can claim to be top in something, even if it's only Hamster Management. Remember British Airways, getting away with poor service and overpricing for years by claiming to be the "The World's Favourite Airline", with no proof needed? Universities can claim to be "Every Student's Favourite", managing not to breach the Trade Descriptions Act simply by citing one of myriad daft league tables.

How is the student to steer through all this hype? I confess to being perplexed, nay, exhausted by it. And I also know that we are living in a period of rising student incompletion rates, probably not unconnected to the difficulty of making a properly informed choice in the first place. Increasingly, students don't choose a course, they are inveigled into choosing an institution, then they try to find a course they want. The criteria for choice are varied: a vibrant nightlife counts for a lot, sports facilities matter, public transport is factored in.

The average English student lives 60 miles from their university, but that figure conceals great cultural differences. For some, going to university is still, as it always has been, an opportunity to leave home and grow up; for others it is only feasible if they live at home because otherwise the costs are prohibitive. Student welfare officers report greater divergence among the student population, with the experience of university being completely different for students at different points on the economic scale.

So what should a prospective student look for? Start with choosing your subject, because if you don't enjoy what you are studying the whole enterprise is wasted. Go to an open day and check out the infrastructure – the cost and quality of residences, the food, the library, the labs, the IT provision. Treat the RAE and QAA scores with a pinch of salt: academics like rubbishing one another whenever they get a chance, plenty of places that get high scores in QAA use part-timers and postgraduates to do most of the teaching, so don't pin your hopes on being taught by the "greats".

Ensure there is proper pastoral support; not just a personal tutor system, but decent medical and counselling support. Make sure you won't live in isolation or miles from your classes. Above all, treat the prospectuses with the scepticism you show towards holiday brochures and mail-order catalogues. There are quality products out there, the right degree for you does exist, but choose carefully and don't expect the choosing to be easy.

The writer is Pro Vice-Chancellor at Warwick University