The benefits of a capital education

The University of London is academically and socially unique
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The Independent Online

Want to lunch with your visiting parents in the Blind Beggar, a pub once frequented by the Kray twins, as Queen Mary students do? Or get to grips with essays in a library converted from the original Public Records Office, at King's? The motley crew of different colleges that make up the huge University of London are packed with urban wonders for curious students to sniff out. The colleges vary enormously, and are far more like universities in their own right.

Fiercely liberal University College London (UCL) is the big daddy of the colleges, the oldest and the largest in the university, and is proud of its roots - the mummified remains of its radical founder, Jeremy Bentham, are still on display in UCL's main building. The college has a top-notch reputation for academic breadth and quality, and a thriving student union heaving with extracurricular activities. This attracted economics graduate Andreas von Maltzahn: "Because UCL offers all subjects and has a culture of sports, drama and music, there are thousands of undergraduates who all want to do something in the evening. In my first year in halls I could discuss life with someone from a different subject until two o'clock in the morning." Like its arch-rival, King's College London, UCL has a whopping medical school attached to it, as well as the prestigious Slade School of Art and Bartlett School of Architecture.

The smart new library at King's provides an inspirational place to study, and the waterfront bar is a hit with frazzled students after-hours. Relatively bountiful student rooms may cheer those reduced to tears by London rents. King's has an excellent reputation for humanities and languages, but it's also hot on science. Guy's, King's and St Thomas's Medical School, and the Institute of Psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital (where TV shrink Raj Persaud practises) are both part of King's.

Both Cherie Blair and Judge Jules studied law at the London School of Economics (LSE) - hence the DJ's moniker. Internationally famous for business and political heavyweights, LSE is the place to go if you have plans for eventual world domination. With academic big guns such as the political historian Fred Halliday in charge of the international relations course, and new boss Sir Howard Davies, currently head of the Financial Services Authority, students are plunged in with movers and shakers straight away. History, media, economics and law excel. "We have the best economics department in Europe," says Judith Higgins, LSE's press officer, "and the best social sciences library in the world."

Equally high-flying is Imperial College, London, which specialises in science and technology. Easy to get into, it ain't - but once in the west and central London campuses, the teaching is world-class. Alongside such exotic degrees as physics and performance arts, Imperial has superb courses in maths, medicine and biochemistry.

If city life sounds too frantic, Royal Holloway, in Surrey, may appeal. If you're lucky, you can nab one of the 500 student bedrooms in the gorgeous Grade I Founder's Building, based on a French château. The college has an excellent reputation for arts and languages and a glamorous mix of international and Home Counties students.

For art-lovers who fancy something grittier, Goldsmiths is famed for the string of creative Brits who studied there: Lucian Freud, Bridget Riley and, more recently, Damien Hirst have all passed through. Based in New Cross, south-east London, the college has a cheerful diversity of students of all ages and ethnicities. The college prides itself on a creative ethos in the humanities and social sciences. To celebrate its centenary, Goldsmiths has planned a new building, housing art studios and science labs, where biopsychologists and sculptors will bump into each other.

In fact, new university buildings are springing up at a hair-raising pace all over London. Students beginning their degree next year at Queen Mary will arrive to see the college's new student village, a paradise of landscaped gardens, bars and restaurants. "I'm extremely jealous," says Karim Nanji, the outgoing student union president, "I'll have left by then." The fantastic professors, such as Lisa Jardine in Renaissance studies and Peter Hennessy in contemporary history, are another draw.

Then there's the ultimate advantage - London is huge enough to hide from anyone that you drunkenly meet in Freshers' Week.

The writer has completed a masters in linguistics at UCL