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BBC headline 18 November 2016

Does it matter which university you study at? A response to the BBC

On 18 November, the BBC carried this article: Does it really matter which university you study at?

The audience of BBC News had been asked to send in their questions on university education, and then to select their favourite for education correspondent Sean Coughlan to investigate. This is the question they voted for.

The BBC said: “Of course, on the idealistic side of things, what really matters is that someone is following a course that they really like and in a place that suits their needs. But there are thornier worries about the cost of university and how much degrees are worth after graduation.”

The article insists: “The evidence suggests that going to university remains a good investment” – especially for women. Coughlan examines how a university education impacts job and earning prospects, and how employers regard different universities and courses. He concludes that universities, employers and applicants “might say that all degrees are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Here, UEA higher education adviser Roshan Walkerley looks at the issues from a slightly different angle.

A recent article by the BBCs education correspondent considers and poses two interesting questions:

  • Does it matter which university a student attends?
  • How do they choose their university when there is such choice and so many factors to consider?

Let’s consider that first question. As Sean says in his piece, there are the crucial factors such as ensuring the course is right for the individual and the university is similarly matched. This cannot be underestimated – achieving the right fit for a student and university is crucial for a successful and enjoyable three years or more.

It’s becoming increasingly important for universities to talk about their unique characteristics, what makes them different or what our colleagues at US colleges would call their campus traditions. In a world of apparent HE blandness, is doing different (and telling students about those differences) key to helping students make the right, informed choices?

As we consider whether it matters which university a student attends, we must consider the experience a student gets from their time there. Many characteristics do indeed vary between institutions and between courses. To name but a few:

  • teaching style and method
  • the mix of theory and practice
  • class sizes
  • opportunities for study abroad
  • industry placements.

These do make a difference and must, I suggest, be considered in a students decision making process.

Of course, it is crucial that undergraduates do make use of the opportunities presented. Choosing a university that offers summer internships will only be advantageous if students consider what they wish to achieve from this experience, and actually follow it through.

I argue that it does matter which university a student chooses but also that a university experience will be unique for all and students must take responsibility for finding this best for them and then maximising the available opportunities to get value for their time and investment in higher education.

Sean’s piece continues to raise the question of quality and notes the self-selected Russel Group as a badge of this, as perceived by some government ministers and parents – but, might I suggest, few students. Young people realise that there is much to consider is choosing a university and that quality is a part of this. How they can determine this, however, is hard as they consider teaching and how a traditional, more research-led institution may vary from one that offers a more student-led experience.

The Teaching Excellence Framework may, perhaps be the extra data source that students wish to consider in choosing their universities. But does a ‘gold’ institution with a slightly higher fee represent a better experience then a ‘bronze’ one? Only time will tell.

Posted by Roshan Walkerley on Tue, 14 Feb 2017

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Roshan is part of the Higher Education Advisory Team at the University of East Anglia, focused on working with schools and colleges in Norfolk, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire as well as European schools. He frequently travels and organises visits for school groups allowing their students to experience campus life and the city of Norwich first-hand. Roshan graduated in MSci Environmental Sciences, during which he completed a semester abroad at Macquarie University in Sydney, worked as a Schools Liaison Ambassador, and served as part-time Officer at his Student Union.

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