Caught in the net
But how do would-be students make these decisions? What information is there to find out about institutions and the courses they offer? How do you get an impression of what life is actually like for students?
When I was applying for university in the early Eighties, the prime source of information was the prospectus, which by tradition always featured black-and-white photographs of students in risibly out-of-date haircuts, somewhere in the proximity of a guitar (great social life) or a science laboratory (academic rigour).
Although supposedly from the days before the image-makers began to rouge the cheeks of education, these prospectuses were small masterpieces of disingenuity. I went to an inner-city university, with its buildings perched on the pavement of a major arterial road - but the pictures in the prospectus presented the place as though it were nestling in the English countryside, with leafy walkways and sleepy fields all around, all images based on a single patch of grass around the back.
Of course, if students get an interview they can see for themselves how the place really looks. But deciding which universities they are going to apply to remains a largely long-distance selection. Even if a prospectus gives details about what a university offers, it's still difficult to know how this compares with other institutions.
What you need is to be armed with as much information as possible, preferably with the kinds of facts and figures which allow you to compare one university with another. The Internet, with its hoard of detail, isn't a bad place to look for help.
If you click into the Internet site of The Higher (sister-paper of The TES), you'll find a statistics section which shows how universities perform in terms of academic achievement, such as "teaching quality assessments" tables, and practical matters such as providing student accommodation. You can also look up such facts and figures as employment rates for graduates, student-staff ratios and entry requirements.
If you want to carry out some more research into the strengths and weaknesses of university departments, you could try the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which is putting some of its number-crunching on-line. At the opposite end of the university information spectrum, is RagNet, which is a surprisingly stylish Internet site that reports on rag-week activities in universities across the country.
But back to those prospectuses. Now that universities have acquired an acute public relations sense, the prospectuses are not only in budget-busting colour, but now they're all over the Internet. Almost every university now has its own Internet site, taking the form of on-line invitations for potential students and as in-house noticeboards for those already there, allowing you to get a flavour of what's happening inside a college, including its clubs, societies or the bands who are playing.
There are mini-sites run by individual departments, giving you more specific details of subjects. And as these pages have e-mail links, it's a quick way of getting replies to any questions about a course or college.
These Internet sites won't make choosing a university easy, but as you can scan through the whole list of institutions in a couple of afternoons, an applicant will at least have an overview of what's on offer.
There are a number of lists of university Internet sites, including uhttp:www.yahoo.co.ukRegionalCountriesUnited_KingdomEducationUniversi ties
The Higher: http:thesis.newsint. co.uk
Higher Education Statistics Agency: http:www.hesa.ac.uk