University claims need to be read very carefully

How useful are university guides? Caroline Haydon and her daughter Kate Taylor weigh up the pros and cons
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The Independent Online

Caroline Haydon: Parent's view

Do you need a university guide? Unless your child wants to study Burmese (one course in the UK) the answer is you probably will. With more than 100 universities and tens of thousands of courses to choose from, a parent lacking the word of mouth that assisted with secondary school choice might decide some sort of compendium advice is useful. They might also, of course, want to avoid the commonest pitfalls in advising offspring where to apply. These are, according to The Times guide, basing advice on your own experience of university 25 years ago; suggesting certain courses will always lead to a good job; suggesting certain universities are good for a particular subject; and of course, projecting your own desires on your loved ones.

But can't you just read the prospectus? You will have to do that too, but as The Times again points out, the claims made by universities are rarely untrue, but they do need reading carefully. "Statistics prove that the quality of our teaching and research is amongst the best in UK higher education", burbles one - but according to The Times that particular institution wasn't in the top 30 for either.

Add to this the fact that parents who can do so may now be shelling out large sums for the whole business, and it begins to seem that £15.99 (all these guides cost the same) might be a small outlay to make sure you and your potential graduate get the best results.

So what do you get for your money? Four guides - Virgin, Guardian, Push and Times - give their own takes on each institution, offering information on academic standing, teaching, accommodation and social life. Push, reviewed as "it's got more detail and it'sfunny", might be just the thing to tempt a teenager into a little contemplation, and it can be usefully realistic, detailing one London campus as "a bit rougher around the edges than the others ...drug-related crime is a concern". Push also has a lively, user-friendly online guide, available through The Independent's Education channel,

Virgin, billed as "an alternative guide for students by students", does what it says on the tin, matching statistical profiles of each university with opinions from sixth-formers, careers teachers, student unions and the universities. It comes up with information on such topics as "what it's really like" covering sport and student newspapers - though rating the risk of violence as "low or average" in British towns or cities doesn't seem particularly meaningful. Pie charts and bar graphs are also handy for students who prefer shapes to figures.

The other two, The Times and The Guardian, offer league tables, subject league tables and subject guides in addition to descriptions of the universities. Unless you are a statistician and a data expert you are unlikely to be able to evaluate the different methodologies, though they are at pains to explain them. The Guardian, for instance, eschews research assessments on the grounds that it is producing a guide for undergraduates, not the university. The same names crop up in the top five of each guide.You might want to know why some places come in lower downtable, and given that even the best vary in quality across subjects, a little table scanning can pay off. These two have different strengths - The Guardian gives an expansive, student friendly run down of each subject covering what to look for in a particular course, with a paragraph from an expert academic. The Times has a very lengthy chapter on the vexed subject of Managing Your Money, with month by month planning to make sure you don't miss deadlines - and a similar guide for the application process.

And if you want individual profiles for Oxbridge colleges, these are in The Times, Virgin and Push.

It seems it's best to be prepared. You might also find copies in the local reference library, of course, though check they are the latest editions. You should be able to trawl the catalogue on your local council website to see what they have on the shelves.

Kate Taylor: Student's view

Forget which university is the best; what we really want to know at this stage is which university guide is the best?

It depends on what you want. There are many important factors to consider when applying, from league tables to the social scene.

The Times is very useful for its league tables, as well as the descriptions that go with them - I found them helpful when looking at which universities were top for my chosen subject. But how will you really know if you will enjoy it there?

Unlike The Times' impersonal, tourist guide-esque descriptions, guides such as Push and Virgin go into far more depth about the universities - analysing the nightlife, student clubs and activities. Push even compares the price of a pint, a can of Red Bull and a glass of wine for each.

Push contains no league tables, but focuses on what each place is like. Virgin is similar, breaking down the universities with charts and ratings. Push and Virgin also find the time to fit some humour in. I enjoyed Push's interesting descriptions - for example, their assertion that the business school is the "glittery trinket" in Glasgow Caledonian's "tiara".

The Guardian guide is similar to The Times, with its focus on tables, but there is a "Student Report" for all universities giving interesting, first-hand information about what it's like to live, study and party at each one. Questions include "What's the accommodation like?" and "What makes you proud of your university?" One of the most practical things about The Guardian guide is that the subject tables are divided into five tariff bands, to reflect what the universities are asking for, points-wise. You might think choosing Sheffield as a back-up for Edinburgh is a good idea, when in fact both require the same points.

Each guide is useful in its own way. The Times is essential for information on the applications process and for its league tables. While guides like Push and Virgin, with their in-depth analysis, could be important in determining whether a university is right for you.

The Push Guide to Which University 2007-8, Hodder Arnold £15.99 ( The Times Good University Guide 2007, Times Books £15.99. The Guardian University Guide 2007, Guardian Books £15.99. The Virgin Alternative Guide to British Universities, Virgin Books £15.99.