Valleys of knowledge: With a cheap cost of living and a stunning landscape, Wales is a great place to study

There are a lot of reasons for choosing to study in Wales. It's one of the most beautiful countries in Europe with wild mountains, green valleys and a rugged coastline where you can swim, walk, pothole, and take part in all kinds of "extreme" sports. It's steeped in history, oozing chapels and castles from every Celtic pore, and has a strong sense of identity and community. If you want to pursue Welsh or Celtic studies, then signing up for a Welsh university is a must.

On a more mundane but important note, the cost of living is lower than most of the United Kingdom. In last year's cost-of-living index drawn up by Push, the university guide, four of the top 10 cheapest universities were in Wales. Bangor was the second cheapest in the country. Students there can buy the cheapest groceries and the cheapest drinks at its students' union and local pubs respectively.

Glamorgan, Swansea Metropolitan and Lampeter are also good value, coming in at fourth, fifth and eighth respectively in last year's Push index, which is based on the price of a basket of goods, the average weekly rent in and around the area, and the cost of a drink in the student bar and local pubs. Rents in Welsh cities and universities are about £55 a week, compared with an average weekly rent of £94 in London.

The universities of Wales – at present there are 12, including the national conservatoire, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama – have some of the most spectacular backdrops of any in Britain. Aberystwyth and Bangor, in particular, are right on the sea and surrounded by spectacular countryside. Aberystwyth is at the inmost point of the curve of Cardigan Bay, on the west coast of Wales, in Ceredigion (Cardiganshire), with sensational sunsets in the summer and dolphins swimming offshore, which you can spy from the campus on the hill. Bangor has a spectacular position too, sandwiched between the mountains of Snowdonia National Park and the Menai Strait.

Inland lies the small but perfectly formed Lampeter University, which is merging with Trinity University College, Carmarthen, in 2010, to form the new Trinity St David University, and which nestles in a little market town deep in South-west Wales. It is home to some stunning scenery and is so remote that it doesn't even have a train station: you must reach it by bus or taxi.

But studying in Wales is not necessarily a bucolic experience. If you choose Cardiff University, the most highly rated institution in the principality, you will be studying at a large civic university in a capital city. Students at Cardiff choose the institution because it is Wales's flagship university. A member of the Russell Group of leading research-intensive universities, it has a renowned medical school and all the edginess and ethnic diversity familiar to British city dwellers.

Clementine Prest, who has just graduated with a degree in English from Cardiff, says Cardiff is an easy place in which to be a student. "Rents are lower and there is a lot of accommodation in the city – and though there's a bit of a rush for it, it's not as bad as Durham," she says. "And you can eat out and go to the cinema much more cheaply than in Edinburgh or London."

But there's another reason why life is easy in Cardiff: it's small. The centre is quite compact and everything is in easy walking distance. Anyone who chooses to study at the University of Cardiff, the University of Glamorgan or at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff – or even the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama – will be able to explore the city on foot, and visit local beaches in the summer. Cardiff Castle is a must and the art gallery is worth a visit, if only to eyeball Augustus John's portrait of Dylan Thomas.

Wales's second city, Swansea, housing two universities, the University of Swansea and Swansea Metropolitan University, is, like Cardiff, known for its neighbouring beaches and for its renovated waterfront. Dylan Thomas called it an "ugly lovely town" and it is full of Thomas memorabilia, from his birthplace to the Dylan Thomas centre where you can immerse yourself in his wild-boy poetry.

The advantage for Welsh people attending a university in their own country is that they pay lower fees. That's because the Welsh Assembly has a policy that students who are resident in Wales pay £1,285 a year compared with students from elsewhere in the UK who pay £3,225 at Welsh universities. European Union students from outside the UK also pay the lower rate. Wales is changing this policy from 2010, when money will be targeted at helping the most needy rather than all Welsh students, as at present.

One of the downsides to the policy has been that Welsh universities have received less income as a result, leading to concerns it may have affected the education they can offer. The Complete University Guide, published annually by The Independent, shows Welsh institutions sliding down the league table.

This year, for example, Aberystwyth fell 10 places, and Swansea and Bangor were down by nine places. Glamorgan was down eight and the University of Wales, Newport, down 16 places.

On a brighter note, Cardiff rose slightly, to 36th, the leader of the Welsh pack, and Lampeter rose 24 places, the largest gain of any university in the country, thanks to a high student-satisfaction rating and a low student-staff ratio.

The Welsh institutions have been hard at work. A number of the leading ones, including Cardiff, Aberystwyth and Swansea, have broken free from the University of Wales and are now awarding their own degrees, or will do so.

To burnish its reputation, the University of Wales, and the seven institutions allied to it, have launched a scholarship programme to attract the cleverest PhD students worldwide. So, expect the standing of Welsh universities to begin to climb.

Glittering alumni: from royalty to rock stars

Aberystwyth

Prince Charles.

Bangor

Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle; Ann Clwyd, Labour MP; Dr Robert Edwards, pioneer of test-tube babies; Frances Barber, the actress.

Cardiff

Neil Kinnock, former Labour leader, and his wife, Glenys, now minister for Europe; Siân Phillips, actress; Siân Lloyd, weather presenter; Huw Edwards, BBC news presenter.

Glamorgan

Welsh rugby players Rupert Moon and Aled Williams.

Glyndwr

Karen Sinclair, member of the Welsh Assembly.

Lampeter

Jack Higgins, the writer; Sulak Sivaraksa, Thai human rights campaigner.

Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama

Sir Anthony Hopkins, actor; Keith Allen, actor; Iris Williams, singer; Rosemary Joshua, opera singer.

Swansea University

The Manic Street Preachers' Nicky Wire, and former member Richey Edwards; Olympian Daniel Caines; BBC correspondent Julia Wheeler.

Trinity University College

Rugby stars Barry John and Carwyn James; Stuart Burrows, world-famous tenor.

University of Wales, Newport

Billionaire industrialist Terry Matthews – Wales's richest man; Justin Kerrigan, writer and director of Human Traffic.

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