University choice and finance


CHOOSING YOUR UNIVERSITY OR COLLEGE

Location, reputation and Open Days

For many applicants the choice of university or college is probably the main priority, with location being a key factor. However, many students have little or no knowledge of regional geography and have no concept of where universities are located: one student thought that Bangor University (situated in North Wales) was located at Bognor on England’s south coast!

Some institutions – probably those nearest home or those farthest away – will be rejected quickly. In addition to the region, location and immediate surroundings of a university or college, applicants have their own individual priorities – perhaps a hectic city life or, alternatively, a quiet life in the country! But university isn’t all about studying, so it’s not a bad idea to link your leisure interests with what the university or college can offer or with the opportunities available in the locality. Many applicants have theatrical, musical or artistic interests while others have sporting interests and achievements ranging from basketball, cricket and football to riding, rowing, sailing, mountaineering, and even fishing for England!

Some other decisions about your choice of university or college, however, could be made for the wrong reasons. Many students, for example, talk about ‘reputation’ or base their decisions on league tables. Reputations are fairly clear-cut in the case of some institutions. Oxford and Cambridge are both top world-class universities in which all courses have been established for many years and are supported by first class facilities. In other universities certain subjects are predominant, such as the social sciences at the London School of Economics, and the sciences and technologies at Imperial London.

Many other leading universities in the UK are also very strong in some subjects but not necessarily in all. This is why it is wrong to conclude that a ‘university has a good reputation’ – most universities are not necessarily good at everything! In seeking advice, you should also be a little wary of school staff who will usually always claim that their own university or college has a ‘good reputation’. Teachers obviously can provide good advice on the courses and the general atmosphere of their own institution, but they are not in a good position to make comparisons with other universities.

The best way to find out about universities and colleges and the courses that interest you is to visit your preferred institutions. Open Days provide the opportunity to talk to staff and students although, with thousands of students wandering round campuses, it may be difficult to meet and talk to the right people. Also, many institutions hold Open Days during vacations when many students are away which means that you may only hear talks from the staff, and not have any opportunity to meet students. However, it is often possible to visit a university or college in your own time and simply ‘walk in’. Alternatively, a letter to the Head of Department requesting a visit could enable you to get a closer look at the subject facilities. But failing this, you will be invited automatically to visit when you receive an offer and then you can meet the students in the department.

ACTION POINTS

Before deciding on your preferred universities and courses check out the following points.

Teaching staff

  • How do the students react to their tutors?
  • Do staff have a flair and enthusiasm for their subject?
  • Are they approachable?
  • Do they mark your work regularly and is the feedback helpful, or are you left to get on with your own work with very little direction?
  • What are the research interests of the staff?

Teaching styles

  • How will you be taught, for example, lectures, seminars, tutorials?
  • Are lectures popular? If not, why not?
  • How much online learning will you have?
  • How much time will you be expected to work on your own?
  • If there are field courses, how often are they arranged and are they compulsory?
  • How much will they cost?

Facilities

  • Are the facilities of a high standard and easily available?
  • Is the laboratory equipment ‘state of the art’ or just adequate?
  • Are the libraries well-stocked with software packages, books and journals?
  • What are the computing facilities?
  • Is there plenty of space to study or do rooms and workspaces become overcrowded?
  • Do students have to pay for any materials?

New students

  • Are there induction courses for new students?
  • What student services and facilities are available?
  • Is it possible to buy second-hand copies of set books?

Work placements

  • Are work placements an optional or compulsory part of the course?
  • Who arranges them?
  • Are the placements popular?
  • Do they count towards your degree?
  • Are work placements paid?
  • How long are they?

Transferable skills

  • Transferable skills are now regarded as important by all future employers. Does the department provide training in communication skills, teamwork, time-management and information technology as part of the degree course?

Accommodation

  • How easy is it to find accommodation?
  • Where are the halls of residence?
  • Are they conveniently located for libraries and lecture theatres?
  • Are they self-catering?
  • Alternatively, what is the cost of meals in the university refectory?
  • Which types of student accommodation are the most popular?
  • What is the annual cost of accommodation?
  • If there is more than one campus, is a shuttle-bus service provided?

Costs

  • Find out the costs of materials, accommodation and travel in addition to tuition fees (see below) and your own personal needs.
  • What are the opportunities for earning money, on or off campus?
  • Does the department or faculty have any rules about part-time employment?

FINANCE: WHAT WILL IT COST AND WHAT HELP IS THERE?

Tuition fees and other costs

Tuition fees are charged for degree courses in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The level of tuition fees for courses has in the past been decided annually and has varied between institutions. 

Specific details of the charges to be made by individual universities for each course will be available on websites. From September 2017. universities will be allowed to charge UK and EU students up to £9,250 a year for tuition fees as part of the government's new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which will assess universities and colleges on the quality of their teaching. The higher-ranked universities will be able to charge to maximum amount (£9,250), though they are not unanimous in terms of when and whether they will effect this, and institutions will be allowed to choose whether or not to participate in the scheme. Tuition fee loans will increase to cover the higher fees. The fee cap for students studying in Wales remains at £9,000, while fees for students in Northern Ireland have yet to be confirmed.

Students should check university and college websites, and websites listed in this section, for the latest information about fees.

You may also have additional charges, depending on your course of study. For example, studio fees for Art courses could reach £400 per year, while for other courses, such as Architecture, Science and Engineering, there could be charges for equipment. There could also be charges for fieldwork trips, study abroad and vacation courses. To find out your likely yearly course costs, in addition to your tuition fees, check with your subject department.

Also, check your fee status if you are planning a sandwich course involving either unpaid or paid placements. You can receive a salary of between £13,000 and £15,000 doing a one-year placement but if you earn more than this you’ll need to check your fee status carefully with your finance officer and consult the relevant websites listed below. 

Loans Tuition fee loans are available to all students from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to help pay their fees. Loan repayments are made only after graduation and, currently, when annual earnings are more than £21,000 a year for students in England and Wales, and £17,495 for students in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Scottish students are eligible to have their fees paid by the Scottish government if they choose to study in Scotland. Students from Wales are currently able to apply for a non-repayable tuition fee grant if ther tuition fees exceed £4,296, in addition to receiving a tuition fee loan. 

 

University scholarships These are usually merit-based and are often competitive although some universities offer valuable scholarships to any new entrant who has achieved top grades at A-level. Scholarships vary considerably and are often subject-specific, offered through faculties or departments, so check the availability of any awards with the subject departmental head. Additionally, there are often music, choral and organ awards, and scholarships and bursaries for sporting achievement. Entry scholarships are offered by several universities which normally stipulate that the applicant must place the university as their first choice and achieve the specified high grades. Changes in bursaries and scholarships take place every year so it is important to check university and college websites.

University bursaries These are usually paid in cases of financial need: all universities charging course fees are obliged to offer some bursaries to students from lower-income families. The term ‘bursary’ is usually used to denote an award to students requiring financial assistance or who are disadvantaged in various ways. Universities are committed to fair access to all students from lower income backgrounds and individual universities and colleges have bursaries, trust funds and sponsorships for those students, although reports suggest that many such students fail to claim the money due to them. These non-repayable awards are linked to the student's family income and vary between universities.

Living costs 

Most students spend their first year in university accommodation. This is usually the highest single cost in a typical weekly budget and the costs will vary considerably between universities. Rooms may be single or shared and include catering or self-catering arrangements. Outside university in the private sector additional costs are likely to include heating, electricity, hot water and water rates.

In addition, other living expenses will need to be considered. These include insurance, healthcare, food, books and stationery, photocopying, computing and telephone calls, clothes and toiletries, local travel, travel to and from university, entertainment, socialising and sport or leisure activities.

Help towards living costs

Maintenance loans All full-time students from the UK are eligible for a means-tested maintenance loan for their first undergraduate degree. The maximum amount available is £8,430 a year, which is based on what a student from England might receive if they are studying outside London. Figures for students from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will vary slightly. All students are entitled to a maintenance loan, however part of this amount will be dependent on your household income – in other words, it is means-tested. ‘Household income’ refers to your family’s gross annual income (their income before tax) of the household you live in. Certain pensions contributions and allowances for dependent children are also deducted from the figure to achieve the total sum.  This loan will be paid back in the same way as a tuition fee loan, ie once you’ve graduated or finished your studies, and are earning over £21,000 a year for students in England and Wales, and over £17,495 for students in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

 

Other financial support

Many major organisations also provide financial help to those in various categories. These include the Lawrence Atwell’s Charity for British citizens, refugees, asylum seekers or people who have lived in the UK three years prior to starting their course aged 16-26 who are from low-income backgrounds and in vocational training. Other sources of funding include the Prince's Trust for disadvantaged young people aged between 13 and 30, and grants of up to £3,000 for students with disabilities from the Snowdon Trust.

Similarly, many scholarships are also offered by professional, commercial and other organisations. These include the armed services and the engineering professional organisations, particularly those specialising in civil or mechanical engineering, and also the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining. There are also sponsorships in which the student joins a firm on leaving school, combining university study with work experience and with an almost guaranteed offer of full-time employment on graduation. And there is the alternative route of taking a sandwich course and being placed with a firm for a year on full pay, often between £13,000 and £15,000.

Some universities also offer additional bursaries to encourage applications from the locality. These may be available to students applying from partner schools or colleges and living in certain postcode areas, in some cases to the brothers and sisters of current students at the university, or to students who have been in care or are homeless. These awards are not repayable.

In addition, students on some health-related courses, for example Dental Hygiene will be eligible for an NHS student bursary. Other bursaries are also payable for shortage subjects for those on teacher training courses.

After starting the course, university and college hardship funds are available to help students in financial hardship or through emergency payments for unexpected financial crises. Hardship funds are also offered in very special cases, particularly to students with children or to single parents, mature students and, in particular, to students with disabilities who may also claim the Personal Independence Payment. These payments are made in instalments or as a lump sum or as a short-term loan.

Useful websites          

Students from England https://gov.uk/student-finance 

Students from Scotland www.saas.gov.uk

Students from Wales www.studentfinancewales.co.uk

Students from Northern Ireland www.studentfinanceni.co.uk

 

INFORMATION SOURCES

Prospectuses, websites and Open Days are key sources of information you need to decide where to study. Other sources of information include books and websites, and professional associations. It is important to take time to find out as much as you can about your preferred universities, colleges and courses, and to explore their similarities and differences.