12 Major Differences Between Universities That Will Significantly Affect Your Studies

Image shows graduates at the University of Exeter flinging their mortarboards into the air.

As you read through their enticing prospectuses all vying for your attention, it’s entirely understandable if you start to get the impression that UK universities are all much of a muchness.

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They all have those stock photos of happy students; they all have little quotes from current students about how thrilled they are to study there; they all make claims to be leading institutions. How different can they really be? Isn’t going to one as good as going to another? Well, no, actually. There are some big differences between universities that may not necessarily be obvious from what you see in the prospectus. We’re going to take you through the main ones so that you know how to compare them.

Academic differences

There’s no point beating about the bush, or trying to pretend that they’re all equal: some universities give you a better education than others. That means that the value of a degree from one university is not necessarily the same as that from another. Let’s have a look at some of the key academic differences you may encounter between different universities.

1. Entry requirements

Image shows York University, seen from over the lake.
Entry requirements are not a perfect guide to academic rigour, however; for example, York University, a Russell Group member, accepts General Studies for some subjects.

First up, you’ll not be surprised to learn that the entry requirements for different UK universities differ wildly. For the top institutions you can expect a minimum of three As to get in; sometimes higher, with an A* thrown into the mix. Other universities may ask for Bs or even Cs as part of their minimum entry requirements, and might even accept General Studies as one of your subjects (hint: most good universities won’t accept this subject). Entry requirements say a lot about the academic standards expected by a university, so this at once shows you just how much universities can differ.

2. Workload

You’d be amazed at how much your academic workload could vary according to what university you go to. At Oxford and Cambridge, for instance, you could expect to be writing two essays a week; many other universities, even other top institutions, expect no more than two essays a term from their students – and their terms are longer than Oxbridge! Nobody wants all work and no play, but if you’re a bright student, it’s likely that you’ll want to be challenged academically. It’s vital to find out how much work will be expected of you at each of the institutions for which you are applying. If you don’t, you could end up disappointed and bored.

3. Academic facilities

Image shows one of the telescopes at Jodrell Bank Observatory.
Jodrell Bank houses the third largest largest steerable dish radio telescope in the world.

It goes without saying that you’ll need good academic facilities such as libraries, labs and lecture theatres, and most universities will be well-equipped in this regard. However, some are better equipped than others. Your priorities will differ, of course, depending on the subject for which you are applying. As a scientist, you’ll value state-of-the-art lab space and cutting-edge equipment; if you’re a historian, a well-stocked library with several copies of key texts will be essential for you to do well in your degree. But look out for the outstanding. Manchester University is sure to be a hit with wannabe astrophysicists – it has the famous Jodrell Bank Observatory!

4. Teaching quality

As we’ve seen in a previous article, there can be enormous variation in the quality of teaching you receive at different universities. This follows on from our point about workload; universities can have very different expectations of their students, and it shows in the style of teaching as well. It’s not just about how much work you’re given – it’s about what actually happens during that catch-all term “contact time” cited on league tables. What’s more, the contact time figures on league tables suggest that it is quantity of time with teaching staff that counts; in fact it is quality. It’s better to have fewer hours that are more academically rigorous than it is to have lots of hours in which you aren’t expected to do or say much. At some universities, academics challenge students in small groups, pick apart their essays and submit them to rigorous academic inspection. Other universities teach in larger groups, in which individual students can hide behind others, or even get away with not showing up at all.

5. Emphasis on research

Image shows a scientist at the University of Exeter conducting research into graphene.
Research into graphene, conducted by the University of Exeter.

Universities aren’t just there to teach students – they also fulfil an important research role, furthering the boundaries of human knowledge. That’s why you see “Research Output” on the university league tables, data that comes from the Research Assessment Exercise, conducted every five years into standards of academic research at UK universities. If you envisage yourself at the heart of cutting edge research, you may favour a university with a strong reputation for research excellence. It’s also worth digging a little to find out about the academics who’ll be teaching you; brilliant professors who are so wrapped up in their own research that they don’t have time for undergraduates won’t be much use to you, however famous they are.

6. Career prospects

Although some politicians would probably like us to believe that a degree is a degree, your career prospects may differ markedly depending on the university you put on your CV. You can find out about graduate employment rates in the university prospectus, but as always, statistics only show part of the picture. You’re likely to find your job hunt rather easier if you have a degree from a reputable university, while some employers may turn their noses up at the newer universities (ex-polytechnics, for example).

Social differences – or differences in ‘The University Experience’

The so-called ‘University Experience’ is seen by students as every bit as important as the academic elements of university life, and the differences between institutions certainly don’t end with the academic side of things. Just as students want different things from their university experience, so universities and the cities in which they’re located offer different experiences. Here are some of the major non-academic ways in which universities can differ.

7. Wealth

Image shows Trinity College, Cambridge.
Trinity College, Cambridge, is the wealthiest Oxbridge college, with a landholding worth £800m alone.

Universities differ in how much money they have, and that translates to the facilities they can provide for you and to the grants and bursaries that may be available to students from poorer backgrounds. This can have an impact on your university experience, as the availability of bursaries to help you cover living costs can mean the difference between financial worries and being able to live comfortably without the stress of money looming over you.

8. University structure

A big way in which universities can differ is how they are structured. While most are campus-based – that is, they have all their buildings on one site – a small number of universities are ‘collegiate’, which means that they are organised into colleges, spread out over a city, which all come under the umbrella of the overall university and have varying levels of independence. It’s usually the overall university that awards your final degree from a collegiate university. Oxford, Cambridge and Durham are all examples of collegiate universities; the University of London is also split into colleges (such as Queen Mary or University College), though these are more self-governing than most university colleges and can award their own degrees. Whether you choose a collegiate or campus university will have an impact on your university experience; if you go for a collegiate one, you’ll feel part of a closer-knit community in the college you end up in, while campus-based universities often feel larger and more impersonal. When you apply to a collegiate university you specify which college you would like to apply to, which adds an extra dimension of decision-making to the process of choosing universities.

9. Accommodation

Image shows student accommodation in Leeds.
Student accommodation in Leeds.

Not all student accommodation is created equally. In terms of the standard of accommodation, you might find that some universities are still using decades-old apartment blocks to house their students, with the decor looking a bit tired and an odd smell lingering in the corridors and rooms. On the other hand, you might be lucky and find that the university you apply to has just invested a load of money in a plush new set of student accommodation, which is far more pleasant. Make sure you are shown the accommodation when you’re visiting on an open day, because there’s nothing that guarantees home-sickness more than shoddy living quarters. Look at the kitchen and bathroom facilities as well as the rooms.
But it’s not just the standard of the rooms you have to consider. The cost of accommodation varies, and so does its distance from campus. Find out whether the accommodation is on site or the other side of town; you might be needing a bike or bus pass if it’s the latter, and if you struggle to get out of bed in the mornings, distant accommodation may not be ideal for you. There’s also big variation in how many years of your course will have accommodation provided by the university. Some offer accommodation for your entire course, while others only provide it for the first year (possibly not even that), after which you’ll have to group together with some friends to find somewhere to live. If this is the case, you’ll also encounter great variation in house rental prices, with the north of the country considerably cheaper than the south and south-east. Rental prices will have an impact on the quality of accommodation you’ll be able to afford. It’s worth sussing out the demand for student housing in the university city; in some, the demand is such that students queue up outside local estate agents from the small hours on the day student housing for the next year is released, so that they can be in with a chance of obtaining a house. This adds an extra element of stress over a university that provides accommodation, but it does at least prepare you for the real world!

10. Social facilities

Image shows the Percy Gee building, which houses the Student Union, at Leicester University.
The Student Union at Leicester University.

Most universities are well equipped with social spaces such as a bar, film room, common room, sports facilities and so on. Some have extra features such as an on-site gym, restaurants or even an on-site dental practice or GP. Your own interests and priorities will dictate the importance you ascribe to various facilities; if you’re a keen swimmer, for instance, the presence of an Olympic-sized swimming pool on a university’s campus may just sway your decision in its favour.

11. City experience

The city in which the university is located can have a big bearing on your overall university experience. A big city is less personal and may seem overwhelming in the beginning, as you learn to find your way around. A small city is easier to get to know, and you’re more likely to bump into people you know; so you’ll probably feel at home more quickly. If you’re a country person, the proximity of the countryside may be a factor in your decision, and somewhere like London may not be the best place for you. Cities differ in atmosphere of course, and some attract hordes of tourists while others are quieter. The cost of living also differs greatly; it’s much higher in London and Oxford compared to northern universities, which means you may have more of a financial squeeze to contend with.

12. Ethos

Image shows Paula Radcliffe at the finishing line of the Berlin marathon.
Paula Radcliffe, the current women’s world-record holder in the marathon, studied at Loughborough.

This final point encompasses something that’s a little harder to put one’s finger on. I’ve called it “ethos” as it’s the best word I can think of to describe the way the atmosphere and culture differs from one university to another. Different universities develop a reputation for certain things that attracts a certain kind of student. Thus the atmosphere at Oxford and Cambridge, for example, could be described as scholarly and studious, and these universities attract students who are scholarly and studious. Loughborough has a reputation for being sporty, so it attracts sporty types. The seaside town of Brighton attracts Bohemian types, and its university is no different. Different universities can attract different personalities, and these come together to create a university’s overall character.
As we’ve seen, universities can and do differ in many ways, even if they look much the same on paper. That’s why it’s important to delve deeper and look beyond the glossy prospectuses. Go on open days, chat to current students, ask questions: this spirit of enquiry will help you find an institution that suits you down to the ground, and one in which you can strive to reach your full academic and social potential.

Image credits: banner; York; Jodrell Bank; graphene; Trinity College; student accommodation; student union; Radcliffe