Choosing Your University Town


Entering Higher Education isn’t just about finding the right course; it’s about choosing the best place to study, live and work too – which can be a challenge, especially if you have a family to consider.

From Civvy Street #42 (December 2013), words: Paul F. Cockburn 

There are currently more than 160 Universities in the UK, between them offering prospective students thousands of courses and a wide range of study options. At first, the sheer scale of this choice can feel paralysing; luckily, there’s plenty of support out there to ensure you find the course and qualification which best meets your aspirations.

Foremost among these is UCAS, which provides a centralised, streamlined application service for those looking to start undergraduate and post-graduate courses. Its online tools enable you to narrow down the subjects, courses and institutions you’re most interested in, and also fine-tune your application to give yourself the best possible chance of success in what can be an incredibly competitive process.

Yet, as those behind The Complete University Guide website recognise, finding a course that best matches your requirements is just one part of the process; as generations of people, young and old, have come to realise, going to university is about so much more than simply attending lectures, classes and tutorials. It can be genuinely life-enhancing and life-changing.


Given that you’re extremely unlikely to spend all of your time in the student union, other considerations necessarily come into play when choosing which course and university you want to join. Not least are those old “Mars Bar” issues: where you’ll live, work (if you intend to do so), and “play” when not studying. These are significant enough if you’re on your own; do you, for example, want to be within easy access of a local convenience store that stocks a good range of ready-meals, and close to a choice of great clubs and entertainment? However, they can be even more complex if you have a partner and/or children or other family commitments to take on board; then, your choice of course can seem the least of your worries!


An undergraduate course in England and Wales lasts three years (up to four years in Scotland); so, moving somewhere to study needn’t necessarily mean settling there for the rest of your life, especially if you don’t have the needs of “a significant other” or existing family commitments to consider.

While it’ll help your studies if you’re not stressed out by a hatred of where you live, if you intend to move on (both geographically and in career terms) after graduation, the actual location of your university may be less of an issue. On the other hand, especially if you have young children, ensuring greater stability and continuity in their schooling will mean committing yourself for a far longer period, requiring thoughts about your post-graduation career prospects.


What kind of environment are you looking for beyond the university gates? The life and buzzing energy you can find in the UK’s larger cities, with plenty of bars, clubs, restaurants, sports facilities, cinemas, etc? Or the potential calmer atmosphere offered by smaller towns and more rural locations?

Some more modern university campuses, built on the outskirts, can feel like enclosed worlds; does that idea appeal or horrify you? Would you prefer the easy opportunity to walk nearby hills and coastal paths rather than the busy pavements of a city centre?

Are you looking to become a part of the wider, local community? “Town” versus “Gown” distinctions can exist, especially in smaller towns and cities that happen to be home to a large university. St Andrews, for example, has a general population of around 17,000, to which the university adds nearly 9,000 students and staff. So, nearly one in three people you might pass on the street in the town will have something to do with the University; but will you feel you “belong” to just the university or the wider community of the town?


What is a place actually like? Unless you’re in a position to stay there for a time beforehand, and to ask a good selection of people who live there, one important indicator for many of us (especially if you have family coming with you) will be reported crime levels. Although the gathering of statistics does vary across the UK, the Complete University Guide regularly compiles figures from a range of official sources comparing rates of burglaries, violence and robberies in cities and towns with two or more universities.

League tables of any kind have their limits, but the latest (2013) figures suggest, for example, that you’re far less likely to be burgled if you live in Bath than if you live in Nottingham. (The latter’s rates are four times the former’s; though, given that Nottingham has a population around 10 times bigger, that’s perhaps not so surprising.) Of course, such figures can only be the most general guide, not least given the changing habits of burglars! But surely even genteel Bath must have its “rougher” districts?


After your time in the Armed Forces, you could well want to get back to your family roots, choosing a university closest to where you grew up, or where you still have family living now. Many Service-leavers, when returning to civilian life, feel the loss of the real camaraderie they enjoyed while in uniform; family and old friends can (if you’re lucky) provide invaluable emotional, social and practical support as you settle into what is likely to be a quite different kind of life.

That said, it’s equally likely that you’ve become quite self-sufficient after years of an itinerant Military lifestyle, and are instead looking for somewhere new to put down roots you can call your own, assuming you intend to stay on in your new home after graduation. This is where keeping in touch with mates who have already left could give you an invaluable “on the ground” sit-rep of where you might want to live.