Whether you’re planning to return to university or attend for the first time, choosing to study for a degree later in life can be the start of an exciting chapter. Though, with hundreds of institutions to choose from in the UK, it can be difficult to decide between them.
In our guide to becoming a university student in your 50s, 60s, and beyond, we stressed the importance of choosing the right course, and offered some tips on finding the one to fit your needs and future goals. But, with many universities offering similar courses, sometimes the toughest decision can be deciding where to apply.
So once you’ve decided on what you’d like to study, and you’ve found a few courses that interest you, then why not consider these seven tips to help you find the right university for you?
1. Consult university rankings
When considering which university to choose, most people will first advise you to take a look at university rankings. These are tables that rank universities based on a wide variety of factors, such as university reputation, student satisfaction, average student to staff ratio, as well as how many students enter into employment after graduating.
There are three main rankings tables in the UK, and they’re published by The Guardian, The Complete University Guide, and The Times/Sunday Times respectively. And while these rankings are based on averages, you can use each source to search for the best universities according to certain criteria. For instance, if one of your priorities is class size, then you can view the university rankings according to student to staff ratio.
You can also use these rankings to find out which universities perform best in a particular subject area. For instance, the best universities for English and creative writing, or those that excel in teaching economics.
2. Read student reviews
Nowadays, with a well-worded search and a few clicks, we can find out what other people think about just about anything; a coat we’re eyeing up, the new restaurant that just opened around the corner, or a popular app.
Reading these reviews can be really helpful when deciding whether or not to invest time and money into something – and the exact same is true for universities. After all, who knows more about the experience of a given university than a student who studied there?
As with reviews of any kind, student reviews are subjective – and what’s true for one person might not be true for another – so they should always be taken with a pinch of salt. However, unlike university rankings, student reviews will give you a personal insight into what people enjoyed about a university and what they didn’t. This can include anything from what the quality of the teaching is like to how good the coffee is in the campus cafe.
Sites like WhatUni allow people to not only review entire institutions, but individual courses as well. And Student Crowd even organises reviews into rankings tables, so you can see which institutions are better-reviewed than others for certain things.
For instance, if you’re looking for a university with a great library and study spaces, then why not check out this list of the best universities for campus and facilities according to student reviews? Or if career services are important to you, then take a look at this list of the best universities for careers services.
3. Decide what your non-academic priorities are
What course you take should always be your number one priority when choosing what university to attend. You want to not only choose a course that you’ll enjoy, but one that’ll provide you with the qualification that you need to suit your needs and reach your goals.
However, there are lots of different ways to get a degree, and university doesn’t have to be solely about studying. In fact, it’s also a great way to get involved in new things and meet new people – and different universities will offer different opportunities. So, to help narrow down your choices, it’s worth taking some time to work out what your other priorities are.
Some questions to consider are:
- Do you want to get involved with extracurricular activities? If so, then it’s worth taking a look at what societies and sports teams are run at different universities.
- What kind of support will you receive? From support with disabilities and learning difficulties, to counselling and careers, universities offer their students a wide range of support. So it’s worth looking into what each university has in store when making a decision.
- What’s the cost of tuition and living? Some degrees, such as online ones with The Open University, are cheaper than typical courses. So it’s worth looking into what your options are when it comes to tuition, as well as the cost of living in different areas if you’re looking to relocate to attend university.
4. Consider whether you want to study at an online, campus, or city university
Universities come in all shapes and sizes, but they can be roughly split into three categories: online, campus, and city.
Online universities like The Open University don’t have a campus, and all the teaching is done entirely online. These can be a great option if you’re looking to earn a degree while you work because you can save time on commuting to lectures and study in your own time. They’re also often cheaper than other, more traditional choices.
The second type of university is a campus university. These are often located in rural areas and typically have all of the facilities and most of the student accommodation on one site. Because everyone and everything is all in one place, a campus university is a great option if you’re looking for a strong sense of community – and they’re a perfect choice for anyone wanting to throw themselves head-first into university life.
Campus universities are also considered by many people to be a safer option than city universities, due to their self-contained nature. But they might not necessarily be in close proximity to other places like a city campus would.
And finally, the third type of university for you to consider when choosing a higher learning institution is a city university. As the name suggests, these are located in urban areas with facilities that are often spread throughout the city. So if you like the idea of being among the hustle and bustle of a city while you study for a degree, then this might be the perfect option for you.
Plus, if you’re commuting to lectures from home, then a city university might also have better transport links. Although, if you’re looking to relocate to attend university, then it’s worth bearing in mind that the cost of living is usually higher in the city and you may not get the community feel of a campus university.
It’s also worth noting that, since the pandemic, many city and campus universities have been offering their courses online. So if you like the look of a course at a traditional university, but you don’t want to relocate to attend lectures, then it’s worth checking if you can study remotely.
5. Consider a specialist university
Traditional universities offer a wide variety of courses on a diverse range of subjects, from law and literature to cosmology and nanoscience. And these institutions are often great choices because they have great services and facilities like libraries, study areas, extra-curricular programs, and a large and diverse student body. Although, depending on what you want to study, it’s also worth considering specialist universities.
Specialist universities are often smaller than typical universities, and they focus on specific subjects. For instance, SOAS University of London is one of the world’s leading universities for the study of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East; and the Royal Veterinary College specialises in – you guessed it – veterinary studies.
Places like this are often good to consider when choosing which university is best for you for a number of reasons. Firstly, their smaller size allows students to receive a more focused and highly specialised education. They also tend to have great contacts for things like work experience and future careers.
A specialist university also tends to be more vocational and less lecture-focused than a traditional university, so if you’re looking to take a practical course like nursing or drama, then these can be a great option. They also offer you the chance to be surrounded by lots of like-minded students who are all studying similar subjects.
6. Attend as many open days as possible
You wouldn’t buy a car without test driving it first or buy an expensive pair of jeans without trying them on beforehand – and choosing your higher education is no different. The best way to try your university choices on for size is to attend open days.
Open days are when universities invite prospective students to come and take a look around the grounds. You can visit the facilities such as the library and student accommodation, as well as speak to student ambassadors and attend talks from your would-be-teachers – so you can really get a taste for what the learning experience and life on campus would be like.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that choosing a university isn’t always about looking at statistics and reading student reviews. As with anything, it’s also about what feels right. This is especially true if you’re planning on attending university in person, as you’ll ultimately be spending a lot of time on campus and in the surrounding area. So whether you take a campus tour or explore the place by yourself, make sure to ask yourself; ‘Could I see myself studying here?’
If you’re planning on studying online, then it’s worth attending an online open day. Most universities run these, giving prospective students the chance to listen to students and members of staff talk about how learning works at that particular institution – as well as what support you’ll receive throughout your studies.
A degree is a huge investment, so if you can, attend as many open days as possible – even for the universities that you’re not sure about. You never know, somewhere might surprise you. And with most universities offering online open days and virtual tours, where you can explore campuses from the comfort of your own home, it’s never been easier to choose the right university for you!
7. Check if your university choice is accredited
In recent years, particularly since the beginning of the pandemic, many universities have started offering courses completely online. This has opened up higher education opportunities to a wide range of people, including those who don’t live near the university they want to attend or full-time workers who can’t fit the commute into their day.
However, sadly, some people have used this increase in online higher education opportunities to take advantage of others by offering bogus degrees from fictional universities; tricking people who want to learn into buying a piece of paper that’s worth nothing. Luckily, it’s not too difficult to tell whether a degree course is legitimate or not.
The best and surest way to avoid falling victim to these so-called ‘diploma mills’ is to make sure that the provider of the degree is listed here on the government’s website.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the institution that you’re studying at (or thinking of studying at) won’t always be listed here. Sometimes, degrees are awarded to university students by a different institution to the one they’re studying at.
If this is the case, it’s best to find out which institution awards your degree, check if they’re listed on the government’s website, and then check with the institution themselves to confirm that this is correct.
There are also other ways to spot fake universities. These include:
- Promising the degree within a short period of time – getting a degree is no easy feat, and it takes time and effort to obtain. Students typically spend at least three or four years studying full-time in order to do so. So if an institution is promising a quick degree with little or no effort involved, then it’s probably too good to be true.
- Indiscriminate admissions policies – university courses usually have admissions criteria. This isn’t to restrict people from getting a higher education, but to ensure that they possess the correct skills and experience needed to complete the course. Therefore, if an online university is offering degrees to anyone and everyone, this might be a sign of fraudulent activity.
- Payment upfront – universities typically don’t require a lump sum payment before you begin your studies. And although this may be an option, tuition is typically paid in instalments. For that reason, if an online university asks you to part with the entire tuition fee before beginning your studies, then, unfortunately, you’re probably facing a scam.
- Spelling or grammatical errors on their website – sometimes, fraudulent university websites can look pretty convincing. But if you spot any spelling errors, this can be a giveaway that they might be part of a scam.
- Insufficient contact details – universities usually have well-staffed admissions departments who – despite facing busy periods occasionally, typically during late summer and early autumn – are usually more than happy to answer your queries.
Fraudsters, on the other hand, typically don’t want to be contacted directly. So if it’s difficult to find contact details and get in touch with them, then this could be another indicator of a scam. It’s also worth verifying the address listed on their website, if any.
If you think you might be involved in a diploma mill scam, then you should report this immediately to Action Fraud either online or by calling 0300 123 2040. Action Fraud is the UK’s reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime.
Whether you’re looking to progress in your career or you simply want to learn more about a subject you love, attending university is an experience that many people treasure for the rest of their lives.
But a degree can also be a hefty financial investment, and if you want to get the most out of your university experience, choosing the right place to study for it is incredibly important.
So when choosing which university you’d like to attend, take your time, and hopefully, some of the tips mentioned above will help you find the perfect place.
For more information on becoming a university student in later life, check out our complete guide here. Or, if you’re looking for some inspiration, why not take a look at Christine’s story? She attended university at the age of 57 and loved every minute of it.
Do you have any additional tips for choosing a university in later life? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.