Push and pulling power

September 25, 1998

Elaine Carlton looks at what alternative university guides have to offer student wannabes

It could be the price of beer, the number of good-looking women or men, or the best place for a buzzing night out. This is what would-be students always wanted to know about universities before filling in their Universities and Colleges Admissions Service forms but did not know who to ask.

Now there are no more secrets. For the thousands of prospective students filling in their forms over the next three months, they can find details of every facility at every university and further education institution in the country in a number of alternative guides.

It is up to the individual whether the facts in these books are crucial to choice of institution, but at least some of them go some way to filling in the gaps about what life might be like in a city hundreds of miles from home.

Unlike the university league tables published by national newspapers, including The Times and The THES, these "unofficial" guides do not concentrate on an objective assessment of an institution's teaching or research excellence. Instead the information is subjective, even anecdotal.

In contrast to the Official UCAS Guide to University and College Entrance 1998, they turn conventional wisdom on its head by using criteria other than methodical and level-headed choice of course and institution. For example, The Push Guide to Which University 99 ignores universities' academic records and concentrates on the social life. Its guide is refreshingly honest.

For example, in describing Thames Valley University, The Push Guide reveals that more than half its students are recruited through clearing and that there has been friction between students and locals at the Ealing site. Of its Slough site, Push says: "There are worse places to live than Slough, like Mars."

The Push Guide gives little help in identifying the courses available. It does, however, have a useful introductory section about the cost of student fees and the facilities available for disabled students. When it comes to accommodation, transport and religious facilities it gives a clear idea of what each university provides.

In a humorous, sarcastic and chatty style it dishes out titbits of information including the tale that the King's College mascot, Reggie, a copper lion weighing a quarter of a tonne, was stolen by City and Guilds who castrated him. But it omits the reason given to all new Leeds students having their first tour of the university for the absence of a swimming pool. The story goes that when an anonymous donor bequeathed a few thousands pounds to the university 20 years ago, the administrators were forced to choose between a swimming pool and a statue. They chose the statue.

The Push Guide has gone multimedia and also comes on CD which allows a virtual tour of any university, peeping into the library, the bars and the shops. It also boasts the opportunity to let prospective students design their dream university according to its size, number of mature students and working environment.

Its major rival is the Virgin Alternative Guide To British Universities, which was published first last year and is heavily anecdotal. Its "View from the Ground" section for each university lets prospective students hear first-hand experiences of life.

Unlike Push it has a section highlighting areas selected as centres of academic excellence by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. VAG takes a more serious look at universities. When describing Loughborough University, for example, it says: "We have once and for all laid the ghost of its past which proclaims it only as a place to go if you are good at sport or engineering.

"If you want the clubland loonery of Manchester or Leeds, this is not the place for you, but there is life in this town other than its two market days each week."

It takes an honest look at the accommodation on offer to students. In its reference to Ulster University's Belfast campus, VAG is quite blunt when it comes to the accommodation category - "None." Similarly when talking about the site's sports facilities it recounts a student asking: "What's sport?" The NatWest Student Book is a smaller, less detailed version of Push and the Virgin Alternative Guide. It is less opinionated and sticks more to an abbreviated version of facts about each university and further education institution. It analyses facilities including libraries, careers services and hardship funds but fails to share a university's atmosphere with its readers. The Student Book does contain a helpful introductory section about how to shortlist universities for your UCAS form and how much time you have to do it.

The most controversial alternative guide is the Red Mole website, which can be found on the Internet. Over the past year the editor of Red Mole, Paul Rapacioli, has encouraged students who are at university to rate their institution according to criteria "which really matter". These include the night life and the attractiveness of both men and women, but students have also been asked to vote on architecture, accommodation and access to computer facilities.

The Red Mole website lets students work through the criteria giving ratings from very poor to very good. All the votes are averaged out to create the alternative university league tables, which this year put Durham at the top overall, although it revealed that Lancaster boasts both the best-looking men and women.

* The Virgin 1999 Alternative Guide to British Universities, ed. Piers Dudgeon, Virgin Books. Pounds 14.99

* The NatWest Student Book 99 by Klaus Boehm and Jenny Lees Spalding, Trotman Pounds 10.99

* The Push Guide to Which University 99 by Joe Flintham and Sophie Dennis, McGraw Hill Pounds 11.99

* Red Mole website http://www.redmole.co.uk by Paul Rapacioli

* The Official UCAS Guide to University and College Entrance 1998, Pounds 18.95

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