"It might be expensive, but these days you get what you pay for" is a common phrase that we have only recently become comfortable in using about higher education and universities. When choosing a place to study for an undergraduate degree in arts, science or social sciences, it's more and more important for prospective students (and their parents) to weigh the benefits of cost-saving with the merits and reputation of the academic courses on offer. Many, confronted with the higher costs of living (especially in London), baulk at considering applying for courses at some of the best universities (not just in the UK, but in the world) for the sake of short-term economy. But saving marginally on the costs of living might mean sacrificing the opportunity to study in the most vibrant, innovative and academically prestigious environment Europe (perhaps the world) has to offer.
Whether one makes the calculation of merit in terms of government audits (of research and teaching) or popular perceptions, higher education in London, with its range of colleges, specialist schools and institutes, is clearly part of the academic elite. In the humanities, for example, history departments at Royal Holloway and the LSE have been ranked above Oxford and Cambridge. Certainly the history degree (taught federally across all of the London University colleges) offers a range of subjects and approaches that are unchallenged anywhere: here, bigger really is better.
With the British Library, The National Archives and a lengthy list of other national archives, the undergraduate and postgraduate historian is spoilt for choice for research materials. In the sciences, Imperial College dominates the academic community in terms of research innovation and cutting-edge projects. And there's probably not a subject which isn't available in one of London's departments: more than likely, if a subject's not on offer, it's because it hasn't been invented yet. In the realms of business administration, management and economics, places such as the London Business School are in the top 10 international listings. In newer subjects such as media arts, the thriving context of the capital's film, radio and television industry provides unbeatable opportunities for practical work experience and intellectual stimulation. Remember, in London you're only ever one Tube or bus journey away from the centre of cultural production.
Going to university is first and foremost an intellectual journey, but importantly it's also about finding out about the diversity of life experiences on offer. Where and how you live will be an important part of your undergraduate experience. For many, their first weeks away from the comforts of home can be a bewildering and lonely time. All universities, whether in Newcastle or Plymouth, Aberystwyth or East Anglia, are aware of this and do their best to ensure that freshers encounter their new environment armed with concerned pastoral advice.
In many provincial (in the best geographical sense of the word) universities, town and gown are firmly identified places. In London, the universities run like a seam through the rich diversity of metropolitan life.
From the vibrant and creative dynamism of the Mile End Road, (where an imaginative academic partnership has produced in recent years a journalism and history degree taught jointly by Queen Mary, University of London, and City University), to the bustling streets of the Strand and coffee-shop culture of Bloomsbury (where one might study at the School of Oriental and African Studies, or dabble in tropical hygiene and epidemiology), the opportunities for encountering friends and colleagues from an almost unimaginable range of backgrounds are inexhaustible.
Not only can you live a fantastic life-of-the-mind, but also have some fun. If you're enjoying life, you'll be learning better too. Some prospective students will be attracted by the glittering prizes of a metropolitan education, but (probably quite wisely) also anxious about whether it all might be much too much, much too soon. One of the great adventures of university is encountering the unknown and the unfamiliar and developing the intellectual tools and strategies for dealing with the challenge. That is, in essence, the change from A-level tuition.
Facing such challenges, as well as learning the intricacies of the Underground, is asking a lot. For those who want to experience the attractions of the bright lights from a safe (but convenient) distance, the beautiful campus of Royal Holloway offers a range of exceptional degrees across the humanities and sciences. A short train journey from the South Bank, Royal Holloway undergraduates have the best of both worlds: access to the federal resources of the wider university combined with the most stunning buildings and elegant accommodation. With Heathrow only a short car-journey away, this university really does offer a gateway to international and global opportunities.
The metropolitan life is not for everyone. Playing safe is very often a sensible option. However, a bit like the homogenised shopping centres afflicting cities around the UK, some university campuses are becoming anodyne. So for those who want their degree to be an adventure (but one with a solid golden lining in the form of a degree of world-class status) the metropolitan option ought to be irresistible. Too much choice (in course options, sociability and even football teams) can be bewildering. But many prefer the à la carte option to the "set menu".
Increasingly a degree is regarded as an investment for the future. As with all investments, we speculate in different ways, with different amounts of capital and diverse ambitions. The universities of London are among the biggest and best brands: you are buying a class product with all sorts of attractive optional extras. Just imagine yourself, sitting on the 168 bus, glancing through a text book on sociolinguistics or an introduction to nanotechnology, catching a glimpse of St Paul's and in the distance Canary Wharf as you cross Waterloo Bridge - destination: a tutorial in Bedford Square, and then a quick visit to the Senate House Library, later on a guest lecture to be heard before meeting friends for a snack at a canteen, and then maybe a film at the ICA or a band at Festival Hall - and that's just Monday. Enjoy it.
Justin Champion teaches history at Royal Holloway, University of LondonReuse content